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Gordon Campbell on Labour’s very bad year

Gordon Campbell on Labour’s very bad year

While Labour leader David Cunliffe still appears to be in denial about the extent of Saturday night’s debacle, there was hardly a single redeeming feature about the election results for the centre-left. Even the victory by Labour’s Stuart Nash in Napier was the outcome of a strong showing by Conservative Party candidate Garth McVicar that split the centre-right vote. Current MPs Andrew Little, Moana Mackey and Maryan Street have all fallen victim to Labour’s low party vote, and that’s symptomatic of the wider problem. Even where Labour stalwarts won their electorates quite handily – Annette King in Rongotai, Ruth Dyson in Port Hills etc – they proved incapable of successfully conveying a “two ticks for Labour” message and time and again, Labour finished well behind National on the party vote. Thus, even where Labour “won,” it consistently lost.

This devastating trend occurred in metropolitan areas from Auckland to Dunedin. In Auckland, Phil Goff, David Shearer Phil Twyford and Cunliffe himself won their electorate races only to see Labour lose the party vote by wide margins – with Carmel Sepuloni In Kelston and Sua William Sio in Mangere being isolated exceptions to the general trend. In Wellington, it was the same dismal story. On election night figures, Labour lost the party vote contests heavily to National in Rongotai, Wellington Central, Hutt South, Rimutaka and Mana - even though senior Labour figures had fronted for the party in those electorates.

Hutt South is a striking case in point. On election night, Labour’s Trevor Mallard finished ahead of National’s Chris Bishop by a slender 378 in the electorate race, yet Bishop delivered the party vote for National by a whopping 6, 372 vote majority over the Labour tally. In Wellington Central, even the Greens won more party votes than what Labour's Grant Robertson managed to inspire for Labour – and although National’s Paul Foster-Bell was widely seen as a mediocre candidate, National’s party vote trounced Labour in Wellington Central by a convincing 4,655. The same party vote catastrophe unfolded in Christchurch and Dunedin.

To state the bleedingly obvious: this is not a good outlook for Labour’s long term future. In the suburbs and central city alike, gentrification is pulling urban liberals towards the Greens and pushing everyone else to National, and beyond. A few Labour matriarchs and patriarchs may still be able to command a personal loyalty at electorate level but – in metropolitan as in rural/provincial New Zealand – the Labour Party seems to have comprehensively lost the argument over the stewardship of the economy, and the perceived fitness to govern.

Nationwide on Saturday night, the low party vote outcome has also shrunk Labour’s capacity for renewal, by starving it of new entrants on the party list. Essentially, almost all of Saturday’s survivors are veterans of the Clark government era. Given that the party vote failures are – or should be - shared by Cunliffe’s enemies and supporters alike in caucus, Labour’s problems cannot be sheeted home entirely to the man at the helm. Chris Hipkins for instance, might care to explain how come – even though he had been gifted a Labour area like Naenae from the boundary changes to Hutt South – Labour still managed to lose the party vote in Rimutaka to National by 3,264 votes on election night.

In terms of any future leadership contest, the election carnage has cost Cunliffe two supporters in Andrew Little and Sue Moroney, and added two probable enemies to his caucus, in the shape of Kelvin Davis and Stuart Nash. What the voting patterns indicate is that Cunliffe is clearly not connecting with male voters, but would Grant Robertson be likely to do that much better ? Stuart Nash, among its returnees, could convince some in caucus that he may be their best long-term bet in that respect. Others would take some convincing that a Shane Jones-like figure (ie Nash) is really the best solution to the centre-left’s current problems.

Right now, policy direction seems more important than shuffling the personalities in Labour’s limited deck. In 2014, Labour looks a lot like one of those roomy old department stores – Deka? DIC? – where its former customers now do their shopping elsewhere. Labour’s social conservatives have decamped to New Zealand First, its young liberals have gone to the Greens and its economic conservatives to National. On first becoming leader Cunliffe had talked of how the GFC had made Third Way economic policy passé – which was a dog whistle that under his leadership, Labour would make a definitive break from the economic policies that have devastated Labour’s core constituencies from 1984 onwards. That change in policy direction didn’t eventuate.

Essentially, Labour added a capital gains tax to social spending without convincing the public of the rationale for either, thereby leaving itself wide open to the old ‘tax and spend’ stereotypes. What it was too timid to promote – and too beholden to its Plus Winston strategy to consider – was an aggressive attack on the current economic settings, crony capitalism, concentrated wealth and workings of privilege. Labour completely failed to get across the message that its capital gains tax was a fairness issue – instead, the policy was largely presented as a technocratic fix to a structural imbalance in the economy, and argued by a Finance spokesperson so “responsible” he was virtually interchangeable with Bill English.

So much for the wishes of the Labour Party members and trade unions who had elected someone in Cunliffe who had promised to lead a genuine left wing alternative to the status quo, and who briefly took Labour to a 37% standing in the polls on the back of that promise. As that prospect receded, so did Labour’s support.

In the end, the voting public decided that it trusted the moderate National version of neo-liberalism, rather than the Labour lite version that dared not speak its name. If I had to pick one thing that epitomized Labour’s basic dishonesty, it would be those campaign advertisements claiming that “only a vote for Labour can change the government.” Think about it. All year, Labour had claimed the exact opposite – that it was a vote for the centre left bloc that was crucial. Yet in its hour of desperation, Labour was prepared to confuse and mislead voters about the nature of MMP, and try to scare them away from backing the Greens or anyone else on the centre-left. Similarly, the false rumour about the Greens being a potential support partner for National seems to have originated in the Labour bunker. As in Te Tai Tokerau, Labour proved more far adept at attacking its allies than its enemies.

On the bright side, at least one major obstacle to reform has been removed by the events of Saturday night. Throughout 2014, Labour flirted heavily with New Zealand First in the hope that Peters could be recruited to a centre-left formation. Well, Labour has now finally been liberated from the relationship with Peters that it pursued and consummated in 2005, and has never really gotten over since. Surely, it must now move on. The NZF social conservatives will in time, find their true home with the Conservatives – who would be a step too far surely, even for Labour. This evolution can only help Labour’s chances of genuine renewal.

Usually when the Labour vote recedes, the Greens go up. Not this time though, as the Greens vote collapsed back to just below its 2011 levels. The 3-4% of voters willing to support the Greens between elections evaporated on the night, and it remains unclear where those potential voters came from, and where they ultimately went. Like lax Catholics who return to the Church in times of crisis, there seems to be a group of centre-right voters who will flirt with the Green alternative between elections, but who will always return to the true blue faith when it really matters. In the circumstances, holding their ground was an achievement for the Greens.

In passing, one can feel sympathy for the rank injustice done to the Conservatives. Thanks to the Epsom gerrymander, the 14, 510 people nationwide who voted for the Act Party got one MP, while the 86,616 people who voted for the Conservatives will have no parliamentary representation at all. United Future, who got a miserable 4,533 party votes nationwide, will even have a Minister on board. A responsible government would lower the 5% threshold and scrap the electoral coat-tails provision. Fat chance of that.

National will now be able to fulfill its third term agenda virtually unchecked. The environment will be laid open to developers by the gutting of the RMA, and National’s package of workplace reform will weaken the ability of workers to bargain collectively – thus leaving wage earners with an even smaller share of the nation’s wealth. It won’t be the first time that people have voted against their own best interests. Between here and 2017, National’s main challenge will be to manage an economy forecast to register lower growth and falling commodity prices. The weakening dollar will raise the cost of imports, including petrol. Over the next three years, National will have to face some unique challenges - and these will test Key’s salesmanship skills to the limit.

Atomic Bomb…You can treat this track as what happened to Labour on Saturday night, or what needs to be dropped on the entire Labour caucus to clear the ground for genuine reform…here, from circa 1978, is the mysterious Nigerian businessman/musician William Onyeabor….


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