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The Letter - 7 July 2014: Election year conference

7 July 2014

Election year conference

Party election conferences are the party’s chance to set the election agenda. They are our equivalent of American Election Conventions, where the parties can get a 10 percent bounce from a successful convention. The party leader’s speech is vital. Leaders have surprisingly few chances to give a scene-setting speech. At the conference the Leader has it all: an autocue that makes any speaker look presidential, an audience willing to clap anything and guaranteed coverage by the media. President Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention helped Obama beat Romney. Sunday was David Cunliffe’s chance to set the election agenda and he blew it with a cliché ridden, humourless speech. In contrast, David Shearer gave a better speech last year but then he did have a compelling personal narrative of having walked the talk.

What was wrong with the speech?

It was a technically poor speech, and commentators who do a simple Google fact check will have a field day. Cunliffe is basing Labour’s election campaign around the claim that inequality is growing. Fact check: inequality is falling and New Zealand remains a very equal country. The claim that around a quarter of a million children are in poverty is dubious, to say the very least. Cunliffe says households in poverty have less than 60 percent of the medium income after housing costs. If Bill Gates came to live in New Zealand, the medium income of the country would rise and, according to that logic, more children would be in poverty. The poverty measure also ignores non-cash transfers. Those non-cash transfers, like health and education, are real and substantial. Cash them up and many of those in “poverty” are on higher incomes than the medium household. Even Cunliffe’s claim that home ownership is falling is a myth. Over 200,000 homes are now held in family trusts and must be pulled from the statistics – including Mr Cunliffe’s.

Awful economics

You cannot win an election without having a credible economic policy. Cunliffe said with some justification that the present prosperity comes from the sale of milk, which is a commodity. He then said the problem with the economy is our dependence on commodity exports. Does Cunliffe not know most of the world’s exports are commodities? Labour, he says, will take us to a new “value” economy, as if milk has no value or New Zealand producers are not looking to add value to their base product. How? By making government the business sector’s unwanted “partner“. Government will make the investment decisions for business but not share any of the risks. It is just not credible to believe David Cunliffe and David Parker know more about business investment than those who risk their own money.

What is wrong with Labour?

According to the latest polls, 72% of voters will not vote Labour. If you are white or male or have a job in the private sector or own your own house, you do not vote Labour. Labour is now a Maori/Pacifica, beneficiaries, union-funded and government employees’ party. The core of Labour’s traditional vote, male, unskilled workers, have largely left the party. There was nothing at this weekend’s conference to attract middle New Zealand to vote Labour. The Warrior’s League team stopped using the Cook Island drums when they realised it was putting off the fans. Voters watching David Cunliffe enter the conference to the sound of Cook Island drumming will have wondered where he thinks Labour’s voting strength lies.

How did this happen?

Labour parties in the old Commonwealth are all struggling. The old working class base has shrunk. Most people now receive some form of tertiary education, so the party has to widen its appeal. Socialism, the ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange has failed. Just saying “neo-liberalism has failed” is not a policy. Based on reality, it’s not even accurate.

Collapsed membership

New Zealand Labour was once one of the biggest political parties in the Western world, as a percentage of population. David Cunliffe boasts the party membership has doubled – from virtually nothing to almost nothing. But who would want their new members? Mathew Hooton, in an excellent article in the NBR, cites the example of ‘new’ member Jill Ovens, a senior Service Workers Union official who stood against Helen Clark in Mt Albert twice, as recently as 2002, but now with her husband Len Richards – famous for a scuffle outside a Labour Conference – was a delegate to last weekend’s conference. Jill and Len and Matt McCarten regard Helen Clark as a neo-liberal. They are now “working from within” to make Labour a true socialist party.

Direct leader election

It is Jill and Len who voted to make David Cunliffe leader. There has always been tension between the MPs, whose mandate comes from the voters, and the Labour Party activists who represent themselves. Direct election of the leader by the party has shifted the power from the caucus to the membership and the unions. In the days of compulsory unionism, unions such as the Hotel Workers Union, the predecessor of the Service Workers Union, was a moderate union. As union membership is increasingly rejected by the private sector workforce, the unions have got more involved in politics. What they cannot achieve industrially they now seek to gain from politics. They contribute heavily to Labour’s campaigns and demand extensive voting privileges in return. The party membership is so small that tiny pressure groups who want radical social change have also managed to achieve significant power in the party. Groups with agendas the electorate is only vaguely aware of, for example “gay”, “lesbian”, “Maori”, and “Pacific” interests, run influential factions within the party that determine policy, party list ranking and now who is leader. There is no moderating center. David Cunliffe’s “ashamed to be a man” statement was directly aimed at the militant “feminist faction” that has the votes to decide whether he remains leader. It was a statement that should never have been made because few outside the party knew why it was necessary. But it was made, duly publicised, and Cunliffe was publicly derided. In reality, he had no opportunity to tackle the popular reaction.

What does it mean?

What is surprising is that Labour still receives a quarter of the vote. At 28% Labour cannot win constituency seats outside of the main centers. Labour is no longer a New Zealand wide party. If John Key can put together his MMP strategy, a topic for another Letter, the left may be in opposition for twenty years.

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