Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: The sorry Labour Party

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Labour Party leader David Cunliffe holds a press conference at his electorate office. Photo /
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe holds a press conference at his electorate office. Photo /

Being 30 points behind National in opinion polls puts Labour and its leader under extreme pressure.

David Cunliffe now appears to be issuing apologies all over the place. He's sorry for everything it seems - even supposedly for wearing his vibrant red scarf too much. But the sorry state of the Labour Party is painted even more vividly by rightwing blogger David Farrar in his must-read analysis of what is going on within the party - see: Labour chess. Farrar's speculation suggests that the party is severely divided, with senior politicians focused on internal issues of personal power within the party rather than changing society, or even winning the election. In fact some are suggesting that certain Labour MPs are hoping for a major loss, and perhaps even deliberately helping achieve this. In such a Machiavellian struggle for personal advancement the key players are said to be Grant Robertson, David Parker and David Shearer. See also Farrar's post, The return of Shearer.

If the above analysis reads like self-serving National Party propaganda, it's also worth reading leftwing blogger Danyl Mclauchlan's similar analysis about the factional war within Labour: 'I think what's happening here is that Cunliffe is signalling that he'll stay on as leader after the election. Helen Clark lost an election and stayed, and look how that turned out.' His mechanism for doing so is to bring allies into caucus using the party list.

So his enemies - who are electorate MPs - are cheerfully sabotaging their party's campaign to prevent any new list MPs coming in' - see: Strategic defeat.

Labour's problems with distractions and disunity

Many Labour politicians and activists are blaming the media and other outside forces for the party's woes. But Labour's Josie Pagani says this is the wrong approach: 'First, stop blaming the media. The problem isn't 'right wing framing'. There isn't a media conspiracy to get a third term National government. When you fall behind everyone airs their favourite explanation and negatives get repeated and amplified. It's the job of politicians, not media, to inspire a change in the story' - see: What does Labour do now?.

Pagani proposes that the party 'Stop barking at every passing car. We don't need a position on every lifestyle or identity issue in the news cycle. Though Labour tries to talk about core themes, like jobs and smaller class sizes, it can't complain when those subjects get overshadowed by its own policies'. And for further constructive criticism from within Labour's own ranks, see Patrick Leyland's How not to release policy.

Danyl Mclauchlan also pinpoints Labour's inclination to focus on distractions instead of core policy: 'they've spent every day since then talking about either Moas, or banning cosmetics, or Cunliffe's 'man apology', or changing the burden of proof in rape cases, or Kelvin Davis' support for the holiday highway, or te reo in schools - with some Labour MPs supporting this and some opposing - ie they've been talking about pretty much anything other than the huge new policy they just launched. And this incoherent disunity is registering with the electorate' - see: Strategic defeat.

It's this lack of unity that has Newstalk ZB's Felix Marwick comparing the party to a earthquake-damaged house in need of a total rebuild: 'Labour is worse than a house divided; it's a house falling apart. It's a Christchurch red zone home. Its foundations are stuffed, its walls are broken, the roof is a leaking ruin, and its garden is submerged in liquefaction. One seriously wonders if the party would be better off ditching all of its incumbents, replacing them entirely, and starting afresh. If ever a political party needed a fresh slate, it's Labour' - see: Labour's popularity deficit.

The most recent extreme example of this disunity and lack of discipline was when a so-called 'Labour insider' went public with criticism of their leader - see Steve Kilgallon's Skiing holiday puts Cunliffe on slippery slope.

This has some leftwing bloggers up in arms about the state of Labour. No Right Turn labels this A circus of self-mutilation. He says that 'faced with an election they're trying to convince us they need to win or National will privatise your kidneys and sell your children to a charter school, Labour's "senior insiders" are sabotaging their own campaign and focusing on positioning themselves for the post-loss leadership struggle. Why would anyone vote for such a clown-show? More importantly, why would anyone volunteer for them? They're clearly not worth the time and effort'.

A Press editorial says that the 'Labour insider' speaking out recently was obviously aiming to inflict 'the maximum harm' on Cunliffe - see: Cunliffe must bring discipline. Unfortunately for Labour, this action was hardly an aberration: 'It was the latest in a series of stories that has put Labour in the headlines all right, but for all the wrong reasons. From Trevor Mallard wittering on with some harebrained thoughts about the genetic reconstitution of moa, to Kelvin Davis breaking with the party line over a contentious highway in Northland, to a half-baked suggestion about changing the burden of proof in rape trials, to Cunliffe's own cack-handed apology for being a man, the stories are a corrosive distraction from whatever substantive policies Labour is trying to promote. The party's message is being swamped by them'.

Labour candidates are now under intense scrutiny for going 'off-message'. For example, David Farrar has highlighted a Twitter exchange with 'Sue Moroney campaigning for free Moroccan cooking classes' - see: The discipline issue.

There also appears to be a growing backlash on the left against those seen to be sabotaging Labour's campaign. Speculation is rife as to the identity of the anonymous 'Labour insider' speaking out against Cunliffe. Danyl Mclauchlan asks simply, 'Mallard or Hipkins? Probably Mallard'. And there are rumours of threats to expel Trevor Mallard from the Labour caucus and the party. After all, Chris Carter was expelled for causing much less damage than Mallard has done recently.

Even Labour stalwart Lynn Prentice is proposing the need to de-select certain MPs: 'I think that like the list selections, that it is time that every electorate always have a contested selection meeting. In those selection meetings, everything should be raised including reviewing the incumbents and candidates behaviour and airing suspicions about it as part of the Q&A. It is time that the tight group around the LECs stop just rubber stamping the existing MP' - see: Collective renewal.

Other speculation about the 'Labour insider' comes from John Key, who 'has accused Napier Labour candidate Stuart Nash of being a party source quoted in a newspaper article making highly critical comments about Labour leader David Cunliffe' - see Simon Hendery's Nash denies Key's claim he criticised Cunliffe. Nash denies the charge, and says 'I must admit when I read it [the newspaper article quoting the party source], apart from the swearing, it sounds a little bit like me'. Cunliffe is reported as believing 'he knew who it was and was certain it was not a current MP, despite the person being quoted as if they were in caucus. He refused to comment further when asked if he had contacted the person, saying it was between them'

Many on the left obviously feel let down by Cunliffe and Labour. What was supposed to be a bolder 'true red' Labour Party has prevaricated and been ideologically incoherent and inconsistent. Chris Trotter puts this best in his column, Making The Change We Need: The votes Labour needs to win are still out there. He says that leftwing voters are disinclined to be bothered with 'a tortured, internally fractious, ill-disciplined organisation peopled by individuals who clearly loathe one another, and who seemed determined to not only lose the Election of 20 September 2014 - but all subsequent elections'. He reports that 'There is now a widespread feeling that... all those who backed Cunliffe have been duped'. He blames Cunliffe for shifting Labour to the ideological centre, which means that 'Labour's potential supporters feel cheated by their party's perceived backsliding and/or equivocating'.

Cunliffe's on-going apologies

David Cunliffe's latest apology is for taking a family holiday. According to Patrick Gower this tendency to apologise is making for 'a long list - there is his apology for being a man and his apology for taking a holiday. There is even an apology for the scarf he has been wearing' - see: David Cunliffe owns up to getting it wrong.

Cunliffe's ski holiday was obviously a very minor issue, and many will wonder why he's apologising for it. The NBR's Rob Hosking outlines three reasons why the holiday came across poorly: 'The problem is threefold: one is that he went to plutocatic Queenstown, which adds to his opponents "leafy suburb/Herne Bay" critique. Second is the anonymous "insider" who grizzled to a Sunday Star Times reporter about how angry a lot of Labour people are about the break.... Finally, there is the matter of Mr Cunliffe meeting, while in Queenstown, the disgraced "prominent New Zealander" supposedly convicted and granted permanent name suppression for sexual assault' - see: Cunliffe's skiing slam (paywalled).

On the topic of visiting the sexual offender, Hosking says that this was an especially poor look 'in an election where issues of sex, gender and "rape culture" are of growing significance. David Farrar explains further why Cunliffe's visit might be seen as hypocritical: 'You go to rape crisis, apologise for being a man, talking about the rape culture in New Zealand, and then go out to dinner (my understanding, or at least meet with) with a man who pleaded guilty in court to forcing himself onto a woman and got name suppression because of his status' - see: Cunliffe meets sex offender with name suppression.

In fact, it's Cunliffe's apology for being a man that is being seen as doing the most damage to Labour. Claire Trevett reports today on survey results that show only 9% think it was a good thing to say. Of particular interest is that 'Women had a slightly dimmer view than men - 44 per cent thought it showed bad judgment compared with 40 per cent of men' - see: Labour's rattled leader vows to stay on message. Also, '45 per cent said it was an unusual way to make a point about domestic violence.'.

Labour could still win

Despite all the negative news stories and polls, Cunliffe and Labour could still win the election. As the Southland Times reminds the public, 'The election result is far from being a foregone conclusion' because 'Under MMP, the gap between National and Labour does not matter. It is the gap between the alternative groups that counts' - see: No margin for error.

Furthermore, the newspaper reminds us that in 2011, 'Polls published in the week before polling day gave National ratings of up to 56 per cent. But their actual result was 47 per cent'. Some similar arguments for a Labour victory being only 'four points away' are made by Labour's Rob Salmond in his Poll of polls update. Of course such arguments are based on the presumption that New Zealand First would choose to go with Labour instead of National.

'Polling usually tightens in the last weeks of an election campaign and, in a Nats v the rest slugfest there is still some chance, however slim, of a real contest come September'. This is the view of today's Nelson Mail - see: Election might excite despite poll results.

Today's ODT editorial, makes some similar points about Labour's chances, saying that 'it is a closer race than many New Zealanders - who seem to analyse the poll results as if our system was still FPP, rather than MMP - believe' - see: It is the party vote that counts. And, 'If National's polling drops, NZ First's rises, Mr Harawira retains his seat and takes another two MPs into Parliament, Mr Key has some worries'.

But the problem is that many Labour candidates are now going to be focused more on winning their own seats rather than the party vote. According to the ODT, 'Somewhat strangely, Labour itself seems to be focusing on electorate candidates in its hoardings, with just a brief mention of the party. It is as if electorate MPs are so focused on trying to retain their jobs they do not care whether people tick the Labour party vote, or give it to another party. One can almost guarantee National will have a two-tick campaign, and for very good reason'.

Also, Matthew Hooton points out that 'Poll numbers also have an element of self-fulfilling prophecy. People don't like voting for losers. As the election nears, Labour risks losing a crucial few further points to the Greens, Internet-Mana and NZ First' - see: Risk of government change remains high (paywalled). But Hooton also argues that Labour could yet still win.

In reporting on the fact that Labour slumps to 15-year low, Audrey Young speculates that 'With just two months to the election, Labour could slip into the disastrous territory held by National in 2002, when it polled 20.93 per cent in the face of the highly popular Labour Government'. See also Audrey Young's report on Labour losing its appeal for men.

Tracy Watkins makes similar points: 'Forget about winning - avoiding an old-fashioned drubbing has become the priority. Only MPs with seats in Labour bastions like Manukau seem safe. It is not at all far-fetched to imagine Labour sinking to National's low point in 2002 - 21 per cent. Under that scenario the damage to Labour could be immense. Unthinkably, even finance spokesman and number two on Labour's list, David Parker, could be at risk. So too would stars like Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little' - see: Cunliffe needs us to like, trust him.

However, Labour have other coalition problems, due to a public dislike of the Internet Mana party - see Patrick Gower's Latest poll more bad news for Labour. He reports on poll results that suggest 59% of voters - and 47% of Labour voters - think Labour should rule out working with Internet Mana. For discussion of how Internet Mana might help Labour's chances, see Danyl Mclauchlan's Gamechangers.

And unfortunately for Labour, other polls are causing concern for the party - such as the one reported by Vernon Small which supposedly suggested that a better election result would come from having a leadership change - see: Cunliffe a Labour liability, poll shows. See also Vernon Small's Permission to panic, captain Cunliffe?.

Finally, for humour on Cunliffe and his reasons to be sorry, see Scott Yorke's Understanding the 2014 election campaign (http://bit.ly/1r5dYg4) and Steve Braunias' Secret diary of David Cunliffe.

- 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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