Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Is Labour in crisis?

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Labour party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / APN
Labour party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / APN

A doomed tone characterises virtually all of the political commentary about the Labour Party at the moment.

There is much speculation about the potential for a further collapse in public support, for the Greens usurping Labour as the main opposition party, and even about another leadership change.

But despite the widespread negativity there are also some reminders that all is not yet lost for Labour and David Cunliffe.

Much of the commentary is in response to yet another terrible opinion poll result for Labour - yesterday's Herald DigiPoll was the worst yet for Cunliffe - see Audrey Young's National, Greens up, Labour at new low. In response, rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton has given the most doom-laden commentary on Labour and Cunliffe in his NBR online column Labour in crisis (paywalled).

Hooton blames Cunliffe's leadership for Labour's doledrums, arguing that 'Labour is doomed if it keeps him'. Writing yesterday, Hooton said, 'This morning's Herald-DigiPoll is utterly disastrous for Labour, especially in Auckland where it has argued the election will be decided. The party needs to urgently begin the process of getting rid of David Cunliffe as leader - possibly with a discussion at today's caucus meeting - or face the prospect of meeting the Greens at around the 21% mark on September 20'.

Yet it's also worth noting that just a few days earlier - albeit before the latest poll result - Hooton also argued that it would be a mistake to see National's victory as a foregone conclusion and that, based on MMP history, it's likely that Labour will recover to produce a closely fought campaign: 'With the exception of 1999, all MMP elections have gone to the wire.

Even in the weeks before Bill English's nadir in 2002, there was a mathematical possibility of a National/NZ First/UnitedFuture/Act coalition, limiting Helen Clark to one term. In 2005, National's Don Brash, along with the leaders of Act, UnitedFuture and the Maori Party, held talks with Winston Peters about forming a government but Mr Peters chose to give Ms Clark her third term. More recently, Mr Key scraped home in both 2008 and 2011 by the narrowest of margins' - see: What would Winston want? (paywalled).

Gordon Campbell has made a very similar argument this week: 'At the same point in the electoral cycle in 2005, when the Clark government was seeking its third term in office (just as John Key is this year ) the polling situation was looking remarkably similar for the incumbent. In mid March 2005, the combined centre-left vote was registering 51% in the One News Colmar Brunton poll, while National (under the leadership of the quintessentially goofy-at-times Don Brash) was languishing at 35%. Yet eventually, the 2005 election proved to be a very, very tight contest. What all this suggests is that it is entirely possible for David Cunliffe to survive his current, largely self-inflicted problems. The great thing about self-inflicted problems is that once you stop hammering your head against the concrete, things suddenly feel a whole better - and you haven't actually hurt anyone else, much as you may have alarmed them' - see: Labour pains.

Another Labour leadership change?

Today's Otago Daily Times newspaper editorial raises the possibility that Cunliffe may have to step down: 'anything is still possible in six months. In reality, unless Mr Cunliffe can pull something out of the hat soon, it seems increasingly unlikely Labour will make it to Government in September. If that is the case, it seems inevitable another leadership battle will be fought' - see: Labour: down and out?. The ODT discusses potential replacements, including Grant Robertson, Shane Jones, David Parker, Jacinda Ardern and David Clark.

Hooton also suggests that a leadership change to Shane Jones is on the cards: 'Since before Christmas, Shane Jones has been privately briefing lobbyists and journalists that if Mr Cunliffe could not poll better than Mr Shearer, there would be a move to roll him before the election. More recently, other senior Labour frontbenchers have been speaking more and more candidly that Mr Cunliffe is by no means guaranteed of making it to the election' - see: Labour in crisis (paywalled).

A leadership change is extremely unlikely according to John Armstrong's must-read column on the matter - see: Cunliffe safe in spite of poll shock. Armstrong's main point is that such a lengthy leadership contest would be hugely damaging to Labour's campaign, and it would provoke 'something that would be little short of civil war within the party'. Rather positively, he also says that 'Cunliffe still has more than a chance of becoming prime minister if the numbers start bouncing more favourably for Labour and the Greens in coming weeks'.

Tracy Watkins also discusses a potential leadership change, and the negative ramifications of that happening, but seems to suggest that Jones and Robertson might be open to it - see: Can Cunliffe turn things around?.

Could things get worse for Labour?

Chris Trotter is one of the commentators forecasting a further collapse in support for Labour as a possibility - see his column from last week, All Over Bar The Counting. Trotter is also fairly pessimistic in his latest column, which suggests the party's hope of mobilising disenfranchised voters has been dashed by the creation of an atomised society - see: How will Labour 'get out the vote'?.

For further elaboration on how such an electoral catastrophe might occur, see Cameron Slater's What happens next for Labour?. He says that 'Labour are in exactly the same place as National was for 2002. A party bereft of ideas, populated with deadwood, lead by an idiot whose sycophants think he is the chosen one'. But the main point worth reading is this - Slater says that Labour MPs 'will realise that with every drop in their numbers it is starting to affect their seat. So they will go back to their electorates and run a candidate only campaign. They won't put up signs with Cunliffe on them and they will focus on local issues in a bid to keep themselves in a job. As a result the party vote will sink lower and then voters will realise that Labour and Cunliffe are losers and people simply don't vote for losers. The list MPs are the ones who are in real strife. Every percentage point knocked off labour's party vote puts more fear into their ranks. But they can't do anything to arrest the slide. Mostly they are useless, led by a more useless leader. Once the fear sets in it really is all over for Labour'.

What's Labour's problem and how can they turn things around?

Despite the concentration on leadership problems, there's possibly even more of a policy problem for Labour. Many commentators are arguing that Labour is failing to pitch any sort of real alternative or vision to that of the current government. For instance, the ODT says today that 'Labour seems to be stuck in the one role, that of attacking and denigrating, while failing to offer viable alternatives' - see: Labour: down and out?.

Labour's economic policies and statements continue to come under scrutiny. For the latest interesting critique, see Act Party leader Jamie Whyte's NBR column Cunliffe peddles foreign ownership myths (paywalled). He argues that there is 'a fundamental conflict between Labour's economic goal and its proposed monetary policy'.

For an interesting discussion of Labour's problems, watch Paul Henry's 7-minute interview with leftwing commentators Josie Pagani and Simon Wilson: Labour confidence falls - poll. And for a lengthy discussion about where Cunliffe is taking Labour, read the transcript of Gordon Campbell's interview with the leader - see: Labour pains.

Much of the commentary is turning to a search for what Labour might do to reverse its poor performance. Possibly the most realistic advice comes from John Armstrong, who says Labour's best hope for Key to hit political banana skin pre-election. And for a reiteration that Labour will concentrate on helping National trip itself up - especially over allegations of 'corporate cronyism' - see Adam Bennett's Cunliffe on poll result: 'We've got more work to do'.

Voters are relatively happy at the moment and there's little chance of Labour dissuading them, says today's Dominion Post editorial Change? Why bother when all is well. Nonetheless the newspaper advises Labour to go hard on the issues of inequality and poverty. It says, 'The best question Labour could ask is: ''They say the economy is improving. Do you feel better off?'' This would possibly focus minds and foment discontent'. Similar arguments about appealing to working class voters are put today in the Manawatu Standard editorial, Labour must focus on voters' interests.

Part of Labour's solution is to question the veracity of the latest opinion poll and suggest there's reason to believe the polling is already turning around - see for example Cunliffe's 4-minute interview this morning on TV3's Firstline: Labour already bouncing back - Cunliffe.

In response to this approach, the Herald's Audrey Young elaborates on why the latest poll result is no aberration - see: Cunliffe, Key and that poll. Similarly, Mike Hosking complains of Cunliffe not getting his facts right.

One area in which Labour could make a serious improvement is in its digital strategy. Social media blogger and scholar, Matthew Beveridge has been publishing a number of useful posts containing advice and warnings for the party - see: What I would do: If I was running @nzlabour's social media, Consistency in branding, Labour moving the goal posts again?, and A breach of Parliamentary Service Guidelines?.

Finally, for some humour, see Scott Yorke's The Thinking Pundit: No need for panic.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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