As the party licks its wounds after a demoralising election defeat, the Weekend Herald asked four commentators with inside knowledge for their diagnosis and suggested cure. Their prescriptions vary dramatically

Len Richards - Service and Food Workers Union organiser

What went wrong?

More than a decade of dirty politics aimed at demonising and destabilising the Labour Party by well-organised and well-funded opponents have taken their toll. The opinion polls reflect the public mood deliberately created by the spin doctors of the right, and the very poor election results for Labour over the last three elections reflect the polls.

In response, our last two campaigns were run by many electorates as if MMP did not exist. Labour tried to win electorate seats rather than the party vote. This time Labour received 200,000 more candidate votes (34 per cent) than party votes (25 per cent).

With 34 per cent of party votes we would be in government.

Advertisement

How can Labour fix it?

A leadership change now will do more harm to Labour than good. David Cunliffe is more than a match for John Key. Our problems lie elsewhere.

Labour's policies are not "too left wing". We lost votes to NZ First because Winston Peters outflanked us on the left. Labour pulled its punches.

Labour needs to build its base among the people it represents. We need to turn outwards, to recruit, and to organise.

We need to go on the offensive and put up a credible alternative to the domination of society by the pursuit of profit at any cost. And campaign for the party vote.

Is the party prepared to do it?

The party showed over the last period that it is prepared to take a strong stance. The change in rules to democratise the election of the leader and the election of David Cunliffe is evidence of this. The party needs to continue to stand firm and deal with its internal discipline problems.

The Labour Party has a rock-solid social base. We can take heart from these supporters who gave us more than 60 per cent of the party votes in some electorates.

Advertisement

As the problems of a system in crisis worsen and proliferate, Labour solutions will gain support if we organise and mobilise around them.

Brian Edwards - Media trainer to former Labour leaders

What went wrong?

For better or worse we live in the age of presidential-style election campaigns. The images of party leaders play as great a role in voting choices as their parties' policies. This is particularly the case in a small society like NZ where voters feel they know the party leaders personally. Likeability thus becomes a critical factor in a leader's success.

Since in reality most voters never actually meet the party leaders, their judgment is based primarily on how those leaders come across on television. John Key, perhaps the most popular leader in New Zealand's history, was deemed hugely likeable; David Cunliffe was widely disliked and mistrusted. Labour had the wrong leader.

How can Labour fix it?

Clearly, under this analysis, Labour has to have a new leader. The qualities which led the electorate to reject Mr Cunliffe cannot be remedied by media training or a public relations campaign. Nor will likeability of itself guarantee electoral success. Labour's next leader must command the party's and the electorate's respect and trust. It seems to me that David Shearer fits that requirement best. But he would need a deputy with a core of steel.

And Labour has to resolve the corrosive factionalism within caucus and the wider party.

Is the party prepared to do it?

It has no choice. As things stand the party's chances of winning the election in 2017 already look slim. But the post-election wrangling over how to resolve the Cunliffe issue, which has dominated television coverage for the past week, doesn't augur well for a speedy resolution. Labour's wounds must be cauterised and cauterised quickly. National, which requires no support to pass legislation, will be in a commanding position for the next three years; the political left will be weakened. But there's an opportunity here for the left to be seen as the gallant underdog and National as the arrogant bully. The New Zealand psyche is predisposed to cheer for David and to boo Goliath.

Josie Pagani - Media commentator, former Labour candidate

What went wrong?

Labour focused on leading a left bloc instead of maximising its own support, and believed it could mobilise 800,000 people who didn't vote in 2011.

It didn't try hard enough to appeal to National Party supporters, while people grew wary that it would rely on parties they really didn't like.

It seemed at times out of touch with the hopes and lives of working people, distracted by issues like gender-quotas, fast trucks and dead trees, which reflected a lack of confidence that its core values are popular enough to win.

Voters began to think Labour was trying to make you a better person rather than better off.

How can Labour fix it?

It's not the voters that need to change, it's the party.

It needs to welcome debate. The party has told its members to debate the future behind closed doors, but Labour supporters are not behind those doors.

Be disciplined about priorities. Labour people need to walk into Mitre 10 on a Saturday morning and ask: What are the priorities of people in there? Stop talking about the stuff that those people find oddball.

Overhaul the organisation. Study the Christchurch East byelection where Labour smashed National a year ago by being relevant, professional and organised.

Is the party prepared to do it?

The New Zealand council and the president have run the organisation into the ground. If they linger they can only make it worse. They have to go because they are in the way of people who do recognise there is a problem and are prepared to fix it.

Change is hard. Many will resist. There are courageous people in the party and they need to be given a go.

John Tamihere - Former Labour Cabinet minister

What went wrong?

The dreadful result last Saturday was not the result of one thing but the culmination of many. The party over the last 30 years underwent a huge churn of ideas, policy and people.

The response to Rogernomics following David Lange shifted the party off the contest of ideas in regard to economics and the concentration on the Kiwi family and the Kiwi battler to a new debate.

Under Helen Clark the party was captured by academics and tertiary-educated leaders of a union movement that never worked a shop floor. They concentrated on identity politics and controlled the party not on the great economic issues, but on whether you were gay, Maori, feminist, bisexual, etc.

The party machinery then populated the Parliament with a narrow compass of appeal.

They lost because they no longer reflect their voter demographic either in values or in priorities. They have driven people like myself out of the conversation and out of contributing to the party. They have lost connection with middle New Zealand and, particularly, men.

How can Labour fix it?

The party officials who continue to choose people because they think in a narrow manner like them have to go.

To think that the union movement is the be-all in 2014 New Zealand society and therefore exclude a thriving third sector from the same rights must change.

Opening the party up to where society has developed and allowing the party base to once again become a broad church must also occur.

Finally concentrate on policies that advance middle-to-low income New Zealand.

We want a fair go for all, not a party of the few run in the name of the many.

Is the party prepared to do it?

Time will tell , but if they do not open the party up for greater participation they will gift National a fourth term and New Zealand First becomes the only credible alternative to engage.