Can Labour ever again lead a governing coalition? – 3 scenarios

Political parties are formed with a view to govern. When a party’s vote drops deep into the 20’s, what must it do to revive its fortunes and poll high enough to lead a governing coalition? Can Labour rise again as National did under Don Brash?

Regular readers of Kiwiblog will recall my lengthy essay posted on Easter Friday about the recent history of Labour; some of it based on my time as an activist there until the mid 90’s attempting to explain Labour’s present day conundrum.

In a nutshell it said that an attempt by the left of the party to seize permanent control of Labour after the massive post Rogernomics ructions under the leadership of Helen Clark, led to a gradual purging of activists from the centrist and right wings of the party. Clark, and her followers in the Head Office and regional hierarchies, ensured the selection of candidates in winnable electorate seats (and after the introduction of MMP, also the party list) that not only ensured she could topple then leader Mike Moore after the 1993 election but also cemented her power base inside Labour guaranteeing her an unchallenged 15 year reign as Labour’s leader. This handed power in the party to an increasingly narrow base of sector and interest groups such as academics, trade unions, progressive feminists and the rainbow coalition gradually driving out activists who were more likely to be white, male, socially conservative, small business owners and church going people of faith. After Labour’s 2008 election defeat, former members of the harder left New Labour Party, homeless after the dissolution of the Alliance, the demise of Anderton’s Progressives and the rise of the Greens, began to come back to Labour assisting in the movement of the party more to the left.

This trend culminated in the amendment to Labour’s Constitution at its 2012 Annual Conference giving 40% of the vote for Party Leader to the party membership and 20% to the affiliated unions leaving only 40% in the hands of the Parliamentary caucus. This new formula enabled David Cunliffe to win the first full leadership primary in 2013 despite having only minority support in caucus – the first time this had ever happened in Labour’s history. The result of his elevation to the leadership was Labour’s third successive and even more disastrous defeat.

When you drive out of the party its more centrist activists, you leave a vacuum that has been filled by harder left activists. When these same activists, alongside the more traditionally left wing trade union leadership, have control of the party’s candidate selections, its policy formation and now the election of its leader, over time you end up with a party, candidates and policies that no longer appeal to middle NZ and a party that is no longer the broad church it used to be. The party may be truer to its left wing principles but it now produces candidates, policies and campaigning rhetoric out of step with the aspirations of floating middle NZ voters that decide elections. National’s moderate centrist direction under John Key has become the natural repository for various key demographic groups that once used to strongly vote Labour and accordingly, Labour has ended up falling further behind National in each subsequent election post its 2008 defeat culminating in its second lowest vote this election since its formation in 1916!

Labour is now undertaking yet another review of why it was defeated and another likely more bruising leadership primary. Here are three possible scenarios as to what Labour can do to revitalize its electoral fortunes:

Scenario 1 – Status quo = no real revitalization

Any of the four current contenders for the Labour leadership are only going to result in variations of a status quo outcome. Here’s the predicted outcome if:

Little wins

With Cunliffe’s withdrawal from the race and the unions’ 20% vote representing a key swing voting bloc, Little stands a better than even chance of winning. However the manner of his victory (as it was with Cunliffe) would be an indictment of modern Labour because he is beholden to an interest group whose power and influence in the wider economy and political marketplace has waned to relative insignificance outside a handful of industries (ports and freezing works) and the public sector. Labour’s Constitutional amendment giving the union affiliates 20% of the vote reinforces one of the most unpopular and unattractive aspects of modern Labour – that of it being controlled by ideologically driven sectional interest groups. Little will find it next to impossible to campaign as a reformer of one of the features of Labour that is a prominent part of its lack of electoral appeal. Little brings other baggage. He’s a poor campaigner as evidenced by his consistently poor showing in both the electorate and party vote in the electorate seat (and his home town) of New Plymouth. Little is also a dour speaker and consistently underwhelmed in the House during Question Time. Whilst he has some experience dealing with the corporate sector, he’s not an aspirational Tony Blair like figure who could transform Labour into a viable New Labour type electable force. Key and Joyce will easily portray Little as a tool of the extremist union movement now largely discredited by middle NZ. The problem of competing for the left wing vote with the Greens also remains and the fault lines of the left leaning party and the right leaning caucus remain making a Little led Labour party just as unelectable in 2017. Status quo.

Robertson wins

He’s campaigning as a fresh face to unify the party. The party membership, bruised after the 2014 defeat, may give the leadership to Clark’s office insider who learned the Clark/Simpson winning way to electioneering and party management. However a Robertson front bench would make no more inroads into Key and the Nats than Goff, Shearer or Cunliffe could manage. The policies will be largely the same because the party is still controlled by the harder left activist base. Robertson may try to move Labour to the centre to woo back the old demographic groups lost over the last 20 years but let’s be honest, is ‘Waitakere Man’ going to be persuaded by a chubby, cardy wearing gay man who is a beltway insider with no work experience outside Parliament. It’s not going to happen. The same need for the Greens will hobble a Robertson led Labour Party just as much it did as the Cunliffe led one. A lurch to the centre will be bitterly opposed by the party’s base and unions. Robertson will campaign on amorphous themes of unity and reaching out but the ideological core of the party precludes the kind of radical shift in thinking it would take to truly win back the middle ground. Thus Robertson is also status quo.

Parker wins

Parker formulated and then campaigned strongly for Labour’s economic programme that was just soundly rejected by voters. How can he credibly repudiate that and try and steer Labour to the centre. The same internal tensions apply to him as to any leader. Parker is an earnest policy wonk with questionable morals – not a recipe to unify Labour and topple John Key. Again the status quo.

Mahuta wins

Mahuta’s candidacy is a long shot and more about positioning herself as deputy. How can a person clearly identified with a minority faction (Maori) who has a reputation for laziness and lacks a charismatic vision ever unite Labour’s factions and win back white male voters.

Scenario 2 – Labour fractures in two

The reality is that Labour has boxed itself into a corner with the change in how it elects its leaders. This scenario could only come about if a truly charismatic outsider or newcomer were to attempt to genuinely move Labour property and provably to the centre. The only current MPs likely to be able to do this would be Stuart Nash (invoking the name of his famous grandfather – we know already he dabbled with Simon Lusk over this very possibility) or Kelvin Davis (making the alluring pitch to be NZ’s first Maori PM!). A future MP such as John Tamihere could also drive such a move to the centre. Labour cannot win back the middle ground with its current panoply of politically correct policies, left leaning special interest factions, MPs with narrow appeal and head office dominated procedures. The man ban and any other gender based quota attempts would have to be abandoned. The new leader would need to be an obviously heterosexual rugby playing beer drinking male to counter the PC, metrosexual, chardonnay socialist perception and stop pandering to the rainbow coalition, reverse Labour’s appearance to be soft on crime and no longer embrace the Greens and their nanny state bans and interventions. This new leader would have to unequivocally sever any connection with the Greens and vow to never be in coalition with them in any form. Ditto the unions. This bold new leader would attack National’s centre heartland with a subtle combination of business friendly policies with a tinge of social conscience. Labour’s right faction remains in Parliament because they have a good number of the electorate seats and could just leave and form a new party. They would take Parliamentary Services funding for their Wellington and electorate offices and likely would get a fresh allocation to pay for a party researcher.

The drawbacks are that a centrist Labour breakaway would still be competing for the centre ground with a moderate National Party and also competing with NZ First. Whilst they would inherit the Parliamentary funding and staffing, they would lack much in the way of party machinery to back them as Labour’s activists are mostly left leaning and would stay with old Labour. Finally what would they call themselves and brand themselves? Remember right leaning Labour MPs (like Peter Dunne and Margaret Austin) left Labour and formed United in 1994 and only Peter Dunne remains. Dunne managed to ride a wave of disgruntled centrist support on the backs of a better than expected debate performance and brought 8 MPs into Parliament in 2002 but lightening has not struck twice.

Scenario 3 – Complete realignment of the centre and left parties

I’m of the view that this is the only option that could see a Labour like party be in a position to govern. But in order to do so, there would have to be a major re-alignment of the current parties that straddle the centre and left of NZ politics and changes of this magnitude could only occur after some key figures retire. Here’s the scenario.

Labour factures into two; a left and a centre party. The centre/right faction as per Scenario 2 merges with NZ First once Winston Peters retires. The only current NZ First MP with the electoral appeal and experience to run or co-run a centrist party is Ron Mark. Let’s call this party the New Democrats (a name similar to Germany’s long standing centrist Party the Free Democrats). Labour’s right leaning members would rally around a Nash or Davis or Tamihere leadership. By combining with Mark (as deputy) and keeping some of the NZ First policy orientation to the elderly, this new party could be good for 20% of the vote as a good base to then try and carve off soft National support. Such a party would be more succesful at this than Labour with all its baggage and factional infighting.

Labour becomes New Labour and, shed of its querulous right leaning caucus members, is free to become a truly left wing party. Mana is done as a brand after the disastrous hook up with Kim Dotcom but Mana hard left activists like Sue Bradford, Annette Sykes and John Minto will be more at home with New Labour shorn of all centrist MPs and members. All that remains is for the Greens to realign themselves and return to their true roots as an environmental party. This cannot happen until Norman and Turei stand down. The socialist elements in the Greens will feel right at home in New Labour and perhaps to consummate a proper marriage of the left, Norman becomes New Labour’s deputy; after all he was a hard left socialist before he was a greenie. This would reduce the Labour versus Greens cannibalization of the left’s vote. The hard left of NZ politics represents about 20% of the electorate. The remaining Greens can hew a consistent and principled mainly pure environmental policy line and be good for 5 to 7 % as they did under Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitsimmons.

Absent the factional infighting and lacking any real competition for the left vote and with a leader unsullied by caucus white anting or wider party unrest, New Labour could attempt to claw its way back to 30%. Add the Greens at 5% and the New Democrats could offer the balance of power that sees the election of a Labour PM. If the new parties operate more strategically (like National, ACT and United currently do) and the New Democrats don’t run candidates in Labour held electorate seats and Labour don’t run candidates in the ND seats, they would enhance the chances of a centre left coalition’s electoral success.

Problems still remain even with this realignment. What policy concessions would New Labour have to make to be acceptable to the Free Democrats? The harder left the policies, the less the electoral appeal. But this realignment seems to be the only hope the left has of ever forming a government – at least while John Key heads National.

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