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Gordon Campbell on the centre left lack of overt solidarity

Gordon Campbell on the centre left’s lack of overt solidarity, and David Cunliffe’s opportunism

by Gordon Campbell

For those of us who – at the time – argued (vainly) in favour of Labour and the Greens campaigning as a bloc in election year 2014, the weekend’s polls were an example of the political advantages that have gone a-begging. The post-polls headlines have all been about how the Key government’s allegedly ‘family friendly’ Budget has cancelled out any lingering impacts of the Williamson/Collins scandals, and put National back out to a 20 point margin over Labour.

Perception: Labour is not getting any traction on National, Labour looks like a hopeless losing bet, the David Cunliffe leadership is failing to fire etc. All reasonable conclusions. Yet by contrast, and if Labour and the Greens were campaigning as a bloc, the headlines would have looked less downbeat for the centre left – such that it could be possible to argue that even after the high water mark afforded by the Budget and its economic surplus/family friendly initiatives, the centre-left still remains within striking distance. Game on. Last year, as the Labour stalwarts at The Standard have argued, the government got a 6% bounce in the polls out of the Budget that wasn’t sustained.

This is not (entirely) grasping at straws. Granted, as David Farrar points out here, the centre-right is still in a far, far stronger position right now to form a governing coalition than the centre-left. As Farrar also indicates, Labour’s current lack of traction at this point of the campaign stands in sorry contrast to the state of the contest in previous recent elections. For all that, Labour’s determination to go it alone makes the uphill task look even more forbidding than it need be. It was an FPP decision for an environment that no longer exists. Counted apart, Labour’s dire polling only accentuates the centre right’s relative weakness; if it were always counted together, the Labour/Green bloc would make this look more like a potentially winnable contest. It would be nice to think the decision was a cunning ploy by Labour to lull the Nats into a false sense of security, but it looks more like stubbornness, and it comes with a price.

The Greens List
Now that the Greens party list has been more or less formalised, the focus falls inevitably on those candidates left standing on the precipice of extinction and/or opportunity. Thanks to the Greens' mode of compiling the list (e.g. by letting every party member of six months standing have a vote) all kinds of tribal/geographic factors can come into play. As a result, some capable candidates – e.g. current MP Holly Walker and Wellington Central business executive James Shaw – are in more danger than they deserve to be, while less talented figures (name your pick) have been rated higher. Well, maybe it isn’t such a mystery why – my example – Kennedy Graham is sitting at number seven. Such an outcome reflects the dual purpose of the party list: it functions as (a) a reassurance to party activists that their values are still to the fore while (b) serving as a magnet to attract those who find the Greens’ traditional image and messaging a mixed blessing. Shaw serves the (b) role very successfully - so successfully that some of the party faithful plainly find it hard to endorse him, despite his manifest political skills in building the Greens’ political machine in Wellington Central.

As things stand - and with the Greens currently rating around 10.5% - 11+ per cent, both Walker and Shaw are probably safe at numbers 12 and 13 on the list respectively. Moreover: in the 2011 election, the Greens’ support did not fade away in the home straight, as it had done in the past when wavering centre left-voters swung back to Labour at the last moment. On another point that would theoretically help candidates on the cusp: the party vote ratio = MP representation formula can be clouded by the wasted vote percentage, which sees the ratio adjusted upwards for those parties that make the cut. This time around, that wasted vote will probably not be substantial, assuming National does eventually give electorate leg-ups to the Conservatives and to the Act Party, and if the Internet Party /Mana bloc results in an extra MP. The big kahuna of the potential wasted vote will always be New Zealand First – but given that it is currently sitting around 5% (at worst) of late, and given the campaigning skills of Winston Peters, it is virtually impossible to believe that NZF won’t be back. So the wasted vote effect can probably be all but ignored.

The main drift will be between Labour and the Greens, which is where that perception issue kicks in again. By standing alone, Labour has doubled down on the FPP-era perception that it hasn’t a hope, thereby potentially motivating an exodus among its supporters to a home with those parties – the Greens, or Mana/Internet – that more closely reflect their values. When Labour loses ground, its partners flourish – and Labour these days is tending to amplify its weaknesses, not its strengths.

Cunliffe and immigration
Here’s an example. David Cunliffe’s attempt to move into NZF territory and promote an anti-immigration policy looks opportunistic. One can see the attraction, given how Labour is faring in the polls. There is also substance to the issue. With immigration running at slightly over 72,000 – an eleven-year high – it would be possible to cite a 40,000 figure as being the rough average for a credible policy, even if the swings did hit 52,000 when Cunliffe was Immigration Minister. It would also be possible to talk about 5-15,000 as a desirable figure, as he did recently to Patrick Gower on TV3’s The Nation.

All this is possible. Yet at the moment Cunliffe is not indicating a target figure or making a case for why that figure would – in the existing circumstances – be the right one for our current immigration needs. Let’s hope those details are forthcoming, and soon. It would even be possible for Cunliffe to assist a New Zealander living abroad to buy a house here while decrying foreign speculation as a factor in driving up prices in our housing market. After all, his wealthy Chicago-based friend is a Kiwi who does reportedly plan to return here to live. Although Cunliffe made a hash of saying so on RNZ this morning, Labour’s policy is not about stopping Kiwis from buying homes in which they eventually intend to live. It is about making it more difficult for foreigners to buy homes here in order to turn a profit, while intending to settle in Australia or North America.

What is intolerable is Cunliffe’s inability to explain what Labour’s alternative policy would look like. His main job in politics right now is to embody a credible and desirable alternative government. Yet on this issue, he seems incapable of being clear or convincing about what level of immigration an incoming Labour government would be seeking to promote. So far, the immigration issue has showcased Labour’s opportunism and its leader’s default setting: which is to sound (a) defensive and (b) condescending whenever the basics of Labour’s position are being sought.

Vanishing Act
Even before she vanished in 1974, the music of Elizabeth “Connie” Converse had conveyed a wry and totally unsentimental sense of distance from the ordinary flux of life. Offhand, it’s hard to think of a comparable expression of what aloneness feels like. Her musical legacy came about almost by accident. In the mid-1950s, Converse had recorded a bunch of songs at the home of a friend, the children’s book illustrator and animator Gene Deitch. There were a few other shots at a musical career that never came to anything. From 1963 onwards, she edited an academic magazine called The Journal of Conflict Resolution.

One day in 1974, she loaded up her Volkswagen Beetle and drove off – never to be seen or heard of again, at least not by anyone who had known her as Connie Converse. What got left behind were the songs that Deitch and Converse’s brother had recorded, and which were finally released on an album in 2009. Now, they can’t entirely be separated from the mystery of what happened to their creator. Here’s how “One By One” goes:

We go walking in the dark.
We go walking out at night.
And it’s not as others go,
Two-by-two, to and fro,
But it’s one by one.

One by one in the dark,
We go walking out at night.
As we wander through the grass
We can hear each other pass,
But we are far apart.

Far apart in the dark,
We go walking out at night.
With the grass so dark and tall
We are lost, past recall
If the moon is down.
And the moon is down.

We are walking in the dark.
If I had your hand in mine
I could shine, I could shine,
Like the rising sun,
Like the sun…

And then there’s “Talkin’ Like You” which is about someone who is (sort of) gone. No regrets. No tears good bye.

ENDS

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