Why Labour’s post-election defeat Review will achieve little

No proven election winning people are on the panel

The people appointed to Labour’s 2014 Election Review Team are not the kind of people who can get to the bottom of Labour’s woes because they have no clue about how to run a winning campaign or how to win back the lost demographics. Bryan Gould was a UK Labour MP during their long wilderness years characterized by a lurch to the left, excessive union domination of the party, grassroots takeover by harder left activists and a party leader election process split between the caucus, party and unions – all identical troubles bedeviling NZ Labour today. Gould identified with the Michael Foot hard left and ran for the party leadership himself in 1992 after UK Labour’s fourth election defeat but scored poorly against the ultimate winner John Smith. Gould is a personification of all that is wrong with Labour and all his public pronouncements since returning to New Zealand in recent years place him at the left of Labour and thus inclined to the view that Labour was not left wing enough.

Margaret Wilson was a prominent member of the ‘sisterhood’ and was Attorney General and Minister of Commerce in the Clark government before becoming the Speaker. She is a well-known feminist progressive and comes from one of the special interest groups that have captured Labour’s policy and candidate selection so is hardly in a position to know how to recommend the party appeal more to ‘Waitakere Man’ since she was a contributor to why key demographic groups left Labour. She is never going to admit that her ilk is part of the problem. The same can be said about Stacy Morrison – again she reinforces the stereotype that has taken hold about Labour – that due to political correctness, they are in thrall to the women’s lobby, minorities and those whose noses have been in the public trough all their working lives. Only Brian Corban appears to have operated in the real world but he is only one of four and the others are all reliable beltway lefties.

The most logical person to head this inquiry is Mike Williams. He was President of Labour through a series of successful election and re-election campaigns AND he knows how to fundraise – something Labour has become utterly useless at. He’s a straight shooter and likely has a bit more of a sense of what it takes to win over middle NZ because Labour managed to do it several times when he was running the Party.

The single most important change that could improve Labour’s electoral chances will not be considered

Labour has done some stupid things in their history but none was more stupid than handing the power to elect their leader to the unions and the wider party. The wider party has drifted to the left over the years as more moderate centrist members have been driven out of the party by Clark and the sisterhood hell bent on purging the party of Rogernomics and been replaced by New Labour lefties returning home. The leftward drift of Labour’s activist base came to head at the 2012 Conference when the constitutional amendment was passed making this change. The mere fact of the change emboldened Cunliffe to commence his campaign to white ant David Shearer even before it came into effect. Had Shearer stayed at the helm, gotten better media training and become more confident in his job, he may have kept Labour polling in the low to mid 30’s and been in a position to invite NZ First and the Greens into a coalition that could now be governing. Cunliffe knew that the caucus suddenly was looking over their shoulders at the wider party knowing that inevitably Cunliffe’s would win a leadership vote put to the wider party and unions. The leftward drift was manifest in the 2013 leadership primary with Robertson and Cunliffe particularly competing to win over the harder left party membership. The caucus contains more moderate voices with still a good number of Clark loyalists who remember how Clark and her team won enough votes from middle NZ to govern for three terms. These moderate voices held the key to who would be elected Labour leader as they had real power in the caucus. Instead of a sizable minority (and sometimes a majority) of caucus, their vote is now only worth perhaps only 15 to 20% of the overall vote. When you add the more left leaning unions to the left leaning party, the voice of moderates is now completely drowned out when it comes time to choose a leader. This has already resulted in one leader (Cunliffe) out of touch with middle NZ and keen to pursue an agenda with a patina of centrist moderation but in reality was more about pleasing Labour’s various core activist groups especially the unions and their agendas. Because these groups are off to the left and out of the mainstream of NZ life, they now can make sure that Labour more directly reflects their narrow world view which makes Labour more unappealing to moderate centrist voters.

Changing the leadership election process back to a caucus only vote is the only way to give power to the moderates who know how to present Labour to centrist voters and yet this change will never happen as the wider party and the unions will not vote to give up their new found power.

No review will never reduce the electorally poisonous power of the unions

Only 16% of the NZ workplace is unionized and most of them are likely already banked voters for Labour. The union involvement is problematic at various levels. First is the principle of affiliation which gives affiliated unions voting power in line with its membership regardless of the political views of its members. This is not only anti-democratic but unpopular with the type of moderate centrist voters that Labour used to win over but has now largely lost to National. At 20%, the union block vote is often the swing vote in the leadership race especially if the farther left leaning party members’ votes are effectively cancelled out by the more centre right caucus leaning. This reinforces the impression that Labour is controlled by special interests and that its leaders are beholden to the unions. David Cunliffe won the party leadership partly because of all the legislative goodies he promised the unions. Middle NZ is turned off by such influence.

The 2008 and 2011 reviews went unheeded

Labour’s defeats at the 2008 and 2011 elections led to internal reviews as to why they lost and what they could do to win again. One of the persistent recommendations was to broaden the base of the party so as to increase the membership and try and get Labour back to being a broader church party more like the National Party. Jim Anderton, who presided over Labour when they had over 100,000 members, has been particularly vocal on this issue of late. While Labour saw an upsurge in members in time for the 2013 primary, it was off a very snall base (5,000 to 7,000) and it was mainly of harder left activists who used to be part of New Labour then the Alliance and then Anderton’s Progressives who saw a chance to fully recapture Labour for the left. Remember these people left Labour because of Rogernomics and would only countenance a return if policies and candidates were more left wing and if they had more direct control of the party. This is not the broad based expansion of membership the previous reviews envisaged. I’m sure this review will make the same recommendations and yet what inside Labour has or will make it more attractive to moderate politically minded folk who may have traditionally voted Labour.

A review won’t change Labour’s narrowed MMP electoral real estate

The weakness of ACT and United has worked to National’s advantage preventing it from having a party to its right and centre from no longer cannibalizing its vote (which is what happened with National’s disastrous 2002 result). John Key’s careful centrist pragmatism with only incremental reforms has kept National firmly entrenched on the centre and centre right ground. The Conservatives have carved out a right wing flank but insufficient to cause National to dip below the crucial 46/47% threshold which really is the tipping point for a Centre Right coalition to lose power.

National’s positioning has marooned Labour to the centre left where it faces much more intense and determined competition. The collapse of the Alliance enabled a more centrist Clark led Labour to take some of the Alliance vote and still hold the centre. The advent of the Greens and its strategy to become a more mainstream left wing party under Norman and Turei versus a more pure environmental party under Donald and Fitsimmons, provided centre left voters with another credible voting alternative to Labour. As the Greens media management and message discipline improved, it became a darling of the media as the unsullied and pristine repository of the left’s dreams and it became safer for Labour voters, fed up with Labour’s faction fraught dissention, to switch to the Greens. When the Greens proved in election after election to be good for a minimum of 5%, under MMP party shopping on the centre left became OK – voters reasoning that their vote for either Labour or the Greens would still see the CL in government. When Hone Harawira left the Maori Party and formed Mana, suddenly the radical hard left was not constrained by MMP’s 5% threshold to seek Parliamentary representation needing only to score above about 1.2% in the party vote to score a second MP. Harawira’s grandstanding on issues dear to the left (child poverty, corporate greed etc.) gave former Alliance and New Labour voters a harder left alternative to Labour that once again could become part of a grand coalition of the left.

Labour is squeezed between the two harder left parties (Greens and Mana) and National’s unwavering moderate centrist positioning. The more Labour moves to try and woo the centre, the more it sheds its left flank to the Greens or Mana. If it veers to the left in an attempt to win back support from the Greens and Mana, it turns off its few right leaning voters who turn to National or NZ First. The positioning of the Greens and National have made it virtually impossible for Labour to be a broad church party because it risks losing left or right flanks. It is trapped in a relatively narrow centre left strip of electoral real estate between the Greens rock solid 10% and National’s rock solid 47 – 48%. Labour may manage to take a few percentage points off the Greens but that doesn’t grow the CL vote. Labour will also shed centrist and older support to Winston Peters – traditional older socially conservative voters who are tribally Labour often find a straight switch to National too much and so opt for the populist senior citizen friendly Peters being a good place to protest Labour’s leftward drift. A review won’t change this reality.

Each faction already knows what they think went wrong

The factional in-fighting that has dominated Labour for years will be just as manifest in this review. The left think that the reason why Labour lost is because they weren’t true enough to left wing principles to un-tap the missing millions (who the left magically think are mostly left leaning but just not motivated to vote) and that Cunliffe was undermined during his leadership and the election campaign by the right leaning ABCs in the caucus. Had the caucus been 100% behind Cunliffe and a true red Labour agenda they surmise, Labour would have polled high enough to be in a position to form a CL coalition government.

The right says the opposite. They say Labour’s drift to the left has turned off centrist voters with a social conscience that used to be comfortable voting for Labour with many moderate former Labour voters either voting for National, NZ First or not voting at all. They point to the leadership election change putting the unions in the driver’s seat as being off-putting to swing voters.

The trouble is that both camps make valid points. The ABCs did undermine Cunliffe in Parliament and on the hustings but they would argue that Cunliffe was lazy, prone to chronic exaggerations that fed a legitimate meme that he was insincere and lacked a discernible core and that he should never have been elected in the first place and would not have been had the old leadership election rules been kept.

How does a review decide who was right except that the reviewers gravitate to their ideological bias and favour the view of their preferred faction?

How does the review decide on the best strategy with the Greens when opinions are polar opposites?

The left favoured a more formal arrangement with the Greens to the level of more joint policy releases and joint campaigning. In their mind, this would’ve reduced the Labour v Greens competition for the left vote.

The right see the Greens as electorally toxic to Labour and in fact put some of the blame for the poor result squarely on the fact that middling swing voters were forced to consider the Greens’ policies as well as Labour’s because it was not possible for Cunliffe to govern without the Greens. With the Green’s popularity seemingly rising (turned out to be a polling mirage) versus Labour’s popularity falling, it was such that they would demand and get substantial portfolios in a Labour/Greens coalition government. That prospect scared centrist voters uninterested in the Greens’ harder left agenda, propensity to propose numerous bans and reflexive opposition to any development of any type barring giant costly unproven green boondoggles.

These opposing views of how to handle the Greens are the complete polar opposite of each other. Once again the views of the review panel will boil down to the ideological bias of the panel members.

The factions are un-unitable each preferring the destruction of the other

Whilst no one will admit to this, in reality this is the secret bottom line of each faction. The more left leaning sisterhood has sought for 25 years to purge Labour of Rogernomics and Rogernomes and they have largely succeeded. The harder left activist base wants to finish the job. They would see a true left leader unsullied by caucus infighting from the right faction as the pathway to electoral success because this left-only rump would somehow be more electorally appealing because they aren’t fighting any more. The in-fighting is thus seen as the major turnoff affecting turnout and Labour’s lack of electoral appeal. This of course ignores the fact that a harder left party and caucus would present voters with a party even less representative of middle NZ because it would be now completely shorn of any members or MPs that come from the moderate centre.

The right believes that middle NZ will not return to Labour until the harder left is silenced or neutralized. The moderate centrists in caucus believe they are all that stands in the way of Labour suffering a complete collapse into a hard core leftist rump attracting maybe 15 to 20% of the vote. They point to the prior success of Labour’s once broad church and the ability that Clark and her inner circle had to reign in harder left tendencies to at least present an appearance as a gentle moderate slightly left of centre party fit to be trusted to govern safely by middle NZ. They believe the lurch to the left is why Labour is now so unpopular.

How does a panel of four people reconcile the irreconcilable? The panel is not going to recommend the one logical solution that could deal to the warring factions – that of one of the factions going it alone and not under the Labour banner as that would be to suggest the self-destruction of the party.

The review will not be read by the demographic groups Labour most needs to attract

Most outsiders will view the review as yet more left wing navel gazing. It will be poured over by activists who vote Labour or for the left anyway and the centrist floating voters whom Labour needs to attract will pay scant attention to an ‘inside baseball’ review.

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