Who will determine Labour's future – the MPs, the members, the unions? The fact is that after a 24 percent election result they are the wrong people to listen to and the truth may be every hard to hear

As he pops back and forth between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, Shane Jones must look on himself as the luckiest of the three men who took part in the Labour leadership race just a scant 12 months ago. While the other two men glove-up for what will be a much more bruising battle, Jones' only problem must be his luggage weight, given the huge bag full of 'I told you so' he must be carting around with him.

Last year he praised the new fangled primary process as making Labour relevant again – and it was for a while, with its poll ratings in the mid-30s. But at the same time he warned the party it had to hold the centre ground if it wanted to stay relevant.

Instead, the party backed David Cunliffe who spoke of a red, not a pale blue party and there was hope for a few weeks amongst the faithful that Labour could win from the left. But if that hope was ever more than an illusion, it was lost when Cunliffe went to sleep over the summer and indulged in a series of well-publicised gaffes before the campaign had even begun.

In the end, he lost. And he lost very badly indeed, the worst Labour poll since 1922.

You can point to the early mistakes around the primary trust, baby bonus and "leafy suburbs" comment. You can point to the later mana cupla and capital gains tax blank. You can point to his lack of authenticity and political instincts that too often are tone deaf.

But that result was not all down to Cunliffe. As he has fairly pointed out, voters could see the lack of support amongst some in his own caucus (some if them not trying very hard to conceal it). As Cunliffe says, a year is not long enough to have put his stamp on the party and the public mind. Yes, he ran a good campaign. Yes Dotcom and Dirty Politics undermined his slim chances and yes he's one of the few Labour MPs with a big and coherent vision.

It must be soul destroying to have scrapped and fought and worked for this job and then be told he has to give up on his life-long dream of being Prime Minister one day.

But you know what? Tough. Politics ain't fair or kind. His moment, brutally short as it was, has passed.

Maybe he can win over the party members needed to win back the job. Maybe the unions can still be rallied by his rhetoric. Maybe he could, somehow, win back the support of enough caucus members to steady the ship. He may be right that he can reclaim the job he resigned this week, but it's hard to come to any other conclusion that he is still utterly in the wrong.

Because he's not listening to the fourth and most important voice; the voice of voters.

If he can look at that result and still believe that he can win the next election, he is only proving he's truly as tone deaf as his critics say. As Robertson knows, it all comes down to three words: "twenty-four percent".

That's the voice of rejection, clear and simple. 24 percent.

Sure, sometimes that can be turned around. But not this time. Why? Because of the caucus. Cunliffe's series of ill-judged decisions since election night mean that anyone with even half an ear on the news knows that the majority of his caucus do not want him back. His own deputy has now said his return is untenable.

(By the way, where did the Norm Kirk comparison come from? Yes Kirk lost in 1966 and stayed on, but he also lost in 1969. Was Cunliffe admitting he's a six year project?)

However unfair on him, it was opposition from within his own team that undermined his introduction to the public in the first place. Voters don't trust a divided team to lead the country. They just aren't going to back someone who doesn't have the backing of his closest colleagues.

And if they weren't sure before, what's utterly clear to voters now is that last year's lack of support – however well patched over in the past 12 months – remains. If anything, it's worse.

So even if Cunliffe can again win the leadership and even if again his caucus vows to back him 100 percent, everyone will know his is a divided team. Whatever display of unity might be conjured up, it will be impossible to believe. Voters will look at Labour and see a lie. There is no way Labour will be able to earn the people's trust and look like a government-in-waiting.

It would be over before it began.

To avoid living that lie, Cunliffe would have to try to purge the caucus of his opponents with a series of by-elections and de-selections for 2017. Yet the division that would cause would not only doom Labour for 2017, but may tear the party apart.

So what to do instead? Labour's problems stem back to the lack of renewal under Clark and then Goff (who did much right in his brief tenure, but who tidied up the policy without being able or willing to tidy up the personnel).

Labour's go-to alternative, Grant Robertson, is a likeable and able politician with sod-all name recognition, no significant policy or public notches on his political belt, and the lead weight of being a left-wing career politician.

Or perhaps there's David Shearer, who was meant to be the perfect centrist candidate, but who in his time as leader struggled with detail, grit and clear communication.

Don't get me wrong, these are all good, capable men. But the non-political folk I've talked to since the election give a more brutal assessment. They see the tone-deaf one, the one they've never seen before and the one who can't talk. Like the three monkeys, it's hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

But such is Labour's choice. Unless, of course, those three monkeys tear each other apart and in desperation the party turns the wise old owl, David Parker.

(Those non-political folk I've heard talk all raise Jacinda Ardern, and she has a likeability factor unparalleled in the current caucus. But I'm not sure New Zealand is ready for a 30-something Prime Minister).

Any which way, it's a long way from the 40-odd percent days of Helen Clark. And it's hard to imagine how any of those candidates could win the centre-ground in sufficient numbers to return to the 40s.

Of course it might not need to; if the Greens stay strong a mid-30s Labour party could be sufficient to change the government. But can any of them do it in three years?

One of the tough choices Labour has to make is whether it see its rebuild as a three year or six year project. That decision suggests different strategies, possibly different leaders. Another is if it's serious about remaining a "broad church" party. Because currently it simply isn't. Use the phrase as much as you like, it's just not. Another is what to do about the Greens... And on and on.

Labour could choose to become a 20 percent party for the poorest New Zealanders, Maori and perhaps those committed to what is perjoratively called "identity politics". That's a genuine option that would allow New Zealand First or some other party come through as a genuinely centrist party in a three-way coalition.

But I doubt that's what most Labour members want in their heart of hearts. But does it have the willingness to listen and reform, does it have the depth of talent to reconnect with former Labour voters and does it have the political strength to fight and hold the centre?

Look at the previous generation of Labour MPs – dominated by the Princes St branch – and you see politicians who saw the big picture, devoured politics for breakfast and knew how to scrap. Is that still there in the current MPs?

Perhaps the shadow of that 24 percent and the unattractive snarkiness coming from Labour this weak is causing me to paint too bleak a picture. All kinds of obituaries were written for National after Bill English's 22 percent in 2002 and it came back better and stronger – after six more years. But you'd have to be blind not to see the real risk, especially after Cunliffe's move this week, that Labour could go the other way and do itself serious, even permanent, damage.

If you were to place a bet, the most likely outcome is that Robertson wins after a bruising contest. He will either be battle-hardened or damaged goods, but the logic of 24 percent suggests he will be leader. And while my earlier 'see no evil' monkey comparison may have been unkind, there is an upside for him in that.

The advantage of being little-known is that he has the chance in the next few weeks to define himself politically in people's minds and set the impression that lasts. The easy tag attached to him is "the gay trendy lefty", as one person described him to me today. But he's potentially much more than that and it's up to him to ensure that by Christmas New Zealanders think of a different list of descriptors when they hear his name. Then, perhaps, three years of straight-talking and unity might give people pause for thought.

However that only works for Labour if the organisation is overhauled... and the policy mix is right... and some old wood is culled and new talent sought and convinced the cause is viable... and mistakes are minimised... and the government hits some rocks.

There are just so many ifs and maybes. Really, the only thing certain for Labour right now is 24 percent. And until that sinks in, the rest is stuff and nonsense.

Comments (25)

by mikesh on October 02, 2014

Comparisons with 1922 seem pointless. In those days, and in its heyday, Labour was on its own in a two party FPP environment. This is no longer the case.

I suspect the "fourth voice" is criticising Labour rather than David Cunliffe. The problem seems to be that the Caucus is at odds with the wider party and, in the eyes of the public, hasn't shaken off neoliberal "third way" attitudes.

by Katharine Moody on October 02, 2014
Katharine Moody

I think Dita De Boni nails it for me;

The fact of the matter is that "middle New Zealand" currently prefers John Key. They want tax cuts, they want a prime minister they could have a beer with. God alone knows why, but their ideal female politician is Judith Collins, Hekia Parata and Maggie Barry (the "Hyacinth Bucket" model).

And they don't care that dirty politics seeps out of every pore of the current administration.

So be it. Labour, at present, cannot sway these people and is not in good enough shape to take on the right-wing smear machine.



by Tim Watkin on October 02, 2014
Tim Watkin

Mike, what makes you think the public is criticising Labour not Cunliffe?

And even if that's the case, it still goes to my key point. If Cunliffe remains, the caucus and him will be at odds and the public will still be turned off and have no reason to trust Labour.

by mikesh on October 02, 2014

Most persons I have spoken to seem to think David ran a good campaign. Also, there seems to be a feeling that he has not been long enough in the job for people to get to know him, and that the party has changed leaders too frequently since Helen Cark resigned. The party's policies, also, were not very appealing.

by Tim Watkin on October 02, 2014
Tim Watkin

I've gotta say I think policy was the least of their problems. Yes the party has had too many leaders and needs stability. That's why I thought he'd probably keep the job... until election night and the days since. He's just done so much wrong since then and the caucus has been so forthright in its opposition, I can't see how he can offer the party a fresh start.

by mikesh on October 02, 2014

"And even if that's the case, it still goes to my key point. If Cunliffe remains, the caucus and him will be at odds and the public will still be turned off and have no reason to trust Labour."

If a week is a long time in politics, three years must be an eternity. I don't know if David can change the public's view of the party in three years (or six if they are taking a longer term view) but I think they have to shed the neoliberal image otherwise they might as well pack their bags and wind up the party. I don't see Grant bringing about the necessary changes.

I'm told gasoline prices are up five cents with the depreciating dollar, and dairy prices seem to be tanking, giving rise to the thought that NZ is perhaps not "heading in the right direction". Labour could be helped by these sorts of factors.



by mikesh on October 02, 2014

"I've gotta say I think policy was the least of their problems."

We don't really know what people were thinking when they entered the polling booths, or what kept them away. However, raising the super age can't have been popular, or raising tax rates, or making Kiwisaver compulsory. And why on earth did they abandon their policy of removing GST from food. There may also have been a suspicion amongst the relatively poor that CGT could impact negatively on the value of their one and only asset, the family home.

by Wayne Mapp on October 02, 2014
Wayne Mapp


i see that many on the activist left run the argument that Labour must abandon the "neoliberal image." I presume it is considered that Helen clark maintained the "neoliberal image." If so, then you would have to say it worked for Labour.

So what does sheding the "neoliberal image" mean in practise?

Does it mean raising tarrifs (in breach of most of our international trade obligations)? Does it mean stoping international investment? Does it mean no more free trade deals? Does it mean top tax rate of 40%? Does it mean compulsory unionism? Does it mean a comprehensive stepping away from any security ties with Australia and the US?

Or is it just a slogan designed to placate the left activists in Labour (as opossed to appealing to Josie Pagani, Kelvin Davis, David Shearer, and dare I say it, middle New Zealand)?


by mikesh on October 02, 2014

@ Wayne Mapp

"Neoliberalism is an updated version of ideas associated with economic liberalism,[1] which advocates — under reference to neoclassical economic theory — support for great economic liberalization, privatization, free trade, open markets, deregulation, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.[2][3][4]"

The above quotation is from wikipaedia.

I see neoliberalism as a group of philosophies that emerged  after Keynesianism appeared to have failed, and which were advanced mainly by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, attempted in Chile under Pinochet, and Russia under Yeltsin, leading in the case of the latter to the near destruction of the economy.These policies seemed to involve privatizations of state assets, war on unions, and the exploitation of cheap and docile labour in other countries such as China in order enhance corporate profits at home at a time when capitalism seemed to be flagging.


by mikesh on October 02, 2014

ps: I should also have mentioned attacks on public spending, tight money, and the deregulation of banking and financialization of the economy, leading to the great fincial crash of a few years back.

by barry on October 02, 2014

On election night I thought Cunliffe deserved another go, but with what has happened since I think he and his supporters have made that extremely hard.  I can't see Grant Robertson turning things around either.

As an unlikely Labour voter (along with most commenters I suspect) my opinion is probably of not value, but I think the caucus have to bury their egos and look for a circuit breaker.  Someone for the future.

Jacinda Ardern could do it, and Kelvin Davis would appeal to the blokes (and a good number of women) without being so obviously a troglodyte as Shane Jones.   Obviously they would have to be strong to deal with the Labour caucus (and incidentally with John Key).  However they would probably get a longer press and public honeymoon to establish themselves.

Whatever happens there has to be a cleaning out of the long-standing MPs (even the competent ones) which means a better party organisation to make sure that the new candidates are at least as good. (They don't have to be particularly good to better than their opponents in National).

by SDCLFC on October 02, 2014

Mikesh, everybody knows what neoliberalism is. Wayne's point was that you were just using it as a catchphrase wihtout any actual substance of argument.  The way people use "it's political correctness gone mad", or now go on about it all being the "mainstream media's fault".  To paraphrase Marcus Lush, it's a catchprhase for the diseffected. 

I didn't vote for Clark's government, instead I voted for Cullen's ministry. Thanks to him lower wage New Zealanders prospered, we built up our assets, we banked surpluses and we had a dynamic economy.  He did all that with the support of business and without dragging us back to the days of a pre-1984 planned economy where you couldn't manufacture fresh orange juice without the approval of the Prime Minister. 

Crowing about neoliberalism is the kind of exclusionary talk that Labour support has become too indulged in and which holds no interest for the votes Labour needs to attract. Or, as Tim has framed so well, Labour can conitnue to represent Maori, Pacifica, the poor and special interest groups and be happy at 24%.

It's my view however that those groups would all be better off with a Labour government at +40%. Politics is about coalescing.


by mikesh on October 02, 2014

The closest we got to neo liberalism was under Labour in the eighties and National in the nineties. I wasn't using the term as a catchphrase but simply pointing out that the party still has to prove to the electorate that Rogernomics is dead and buried within the party.

by Mark Murphy on October 03, 2014
Mark Murphy

I agree with you Tim. NZ is not going to warm - has not warmed - to a caucus that are so divided.They look divided before, when everyone was holding their tongues and presenting as loyal. Now, what is coming out just confirms what most voters intuitively felt. It's so obvious. Who cares about policy and message - it's about credibility. You can't present a case for government by being this divided. A case for MMP government, for tricky, complex coalition government. 

Labour Party, the bottom line: You can't ask NZers to vote for David Cunliffe to lead the country, when the majority of his caucus consistently vote no confidence in his leadership.

What on earth are you doing, David Cunliffe? If you end up winning enough union and members vote (which is a big if), can you imagine the caucus will happily swing in behind you now? You are flirting with the death of the Labour Party. Perhaps that's your political destiny. Perhaps your ego is right - you are here for big things. Perhaps Labour needs to die in its current, divided, poisoned form.

Cunliffe keeps on talking up his caucus members' "professionalism" - i.e. if I win I trust the 'professionalism' of my colleagues to unite and get in behind me.

Note to David Cunliffe and the Labour Party caucus: Political professionalism is more than just collective caucus loyalty.  It is also about principle - the courage to stand for what you believe is right. This is also the basis of the Labour Party. How can the majority of caucus stand behind a leader they patently have no confidence in? How can they ask NZ voters, on these terms, to have confidence in David Cunliffe as the next Prime Minister of New Zealand, to vote for him when they aren't prepared to themselves? And David Cunliffe, how can you ask your caucus members to even consider this? 

If, through a combination of diehard loyalty, bitter division, mass ignorance, and dark political voodoo, David Cunliffe wins the Labour primary, the most courageous and honest thing for the majority of caucus - who will have clearly, publicly, voted no confidence in him twice - will be to split off and found the 'New Zealand Progressive Party', 'the Progressives'.  This may be the most honest outcome for the NZ Labour Party if it's members can't work out that voting David Cunliffe is death - death to Labour as a major poltiical party.  




by Tim Watkin on October 03, 2014
Tim Watkin

Mike, no we can't know what motivated every voter... though I see you're as keen to have a guess as I man, with your points about compulsory Kiwisaver and the super age. From memory I think there's some support in polls for such policies - at least raising the super age seems to have become more accepted as inevitable, although it probably does help NZ First and National retain some vote.

But I think the evidence suggests that Cunliffe and his backers tried to sell a more "red" vision to the country and it wasn't buying. There's got to be a lesson taken from that 24 percent regarding what voters want, whatever you or I might think best for NZ. And I really don't think 'no neoliberalism' is what people were saying.

by Tim Watkin on October 03, 2014
Tim Watkin

Barry, you've hit some nails on the head there... but Kelvin is so new to parliament and Jacinda, well, are people going to accept such a young leader? In 2017 she'd be what, 37? Would you be OK with a 37 year-old PM or deputy PM?

... Cunliffe was meant to be the bridge until they were ready.

by mikesh on October 03, 2014

@Tim Watkin

I think from memory that the preferred pm polls painted David as reasonably popular with the electorate, though not of course as popular as as the incumbent. And as far as the question of what motivates voters is concerned  I'm not suggesting that it was definitely "policy", but only that the latter is a pretty credible candidate.

Labour seems share National's obsession with balancing the budget and producing surpluses. There is nothing "red" about that.



by SDCLFC on October 03, 2014

@mikesh, I thought Labour did that under Michael Cullen. Rogernomics is dead and buried,no flat taxes, no more privatisation, no more cutting public spending, but there are aspects that will not be rolled back.

On another note, I can see why Grant's an underdog to firstly win broad support across Labour and then the nation, but he has the added advantage of when he speaks, he lands where he's aiming. The more people he can get in front of to speak the better. 

by mikesh on October 03, 2014


Labour's dead and buried. Rogernomics lives on.

by barry on October 03, 2014


"... but Kelvin is so new to parliament and Jacinda, well, are people going to accept such a young leader? "

Presumably that Labour will go up if they can all sing the same song in 2017 regardless of who is leader.  It is not the leader that was the problem this time, but they were done by the economy seeming to be healthy and John Key goving people no reason to change.  On top of that Labour didn't seem convincing for a number of reasons.

So in 2017 there are 2 options. National governs with the support of NZ First or some other rightish party(ies).  Or Labour governs as the largest part of a 2 or 3 party grouping.  In either case their leader is not going to have the sort of power that John Key has, but are going to be much more of a manager and coalition builder.

Sure, GR could do that, but someone like JA is probably better suited to the role.

OTOH if Labour was going to be chasing 40+% then they won't get there without someone who can reach across from the managerial to the working well off, to the working poor, to the beneficiaries.  I can't see anybody in the current caucus doing that except for KD.

As for Nash, well he might be a reincarnation of David Lange and Helen Clark combined, but I haven't seen it and I dont think many people outside Hawkes Bay have.  I think he would be the most risky option.

Go for GR and hope for 29% and that the Greens can get enough so that they can ask Winston nicely.  or take a risk and build for the future even if they can't win in 2017.


by Brendon Mills on October 04, 2014
Brendon Mills

mikesh -- NZ went way further with neo-liberalism than any of the examples you provided.

While Pinochet's government sold off everything that wasnt nailed down, it still kept kept control of the mining sector, and curiously, the railways.

Russia still has state control over its energy and aerospace sectors, along with the railways, and telecommunications industries. 

The Iron Lady never went near the BBC, ITV, or the NHS, and declared privatising British Rail would be one privatisation too far. Power and water werent privatised until her third (and last term).

Under Reagan small town USA didnt lose their post offices (but it looks like under Obama they will), passenger rail services, and Tennesee never lost their Valley Authority. Welfare reform and privatisation had to wait for Clinton -- the right hates him because he gets to take the credit. And still, the electricity sector is largely publicly owned, and where not publicly owned, highly regulated.

And of course, the famous Gdansk shipyard is still partly owned by the Polish government.

We kinda went further than a lot of countries. Kiwis, despite a tradition of public ownership going back 150 years, seem to think that government ownership = Siberian tractor factories. And as a consequence, we kinda sold everything, when we didnt have to.


by Tim Watkin on October 04, 2014
Tim Watkin

Mike, I agree that from a policy point of view that Labour wasn't red; very orthodox in most ways. The exception was perhaps NZ Power (thought as Brendon points out it's all relative) and the increased/new tax line. But a) Cunliffe's initial rhetoric was "red" and he never clearly swung back to the centre as most politicians do in other countries after they've won a primary by playing to their base, and b) his reliance on the Greens and possibly I-M in a way National wasn't played a big part, I suspect. Actually, that angle's worth some more thought and another post when I get a moment.

by mikesh on October 04, 2014

Tim, I must say I never found his rhetoric particularly "red". There was too much emphasis, I thought, on balancing the budget, achieving surpluses, and governing responsibly. It's not that there is anything wrong with with responsible government; it's just that it's not something I would expect left wing goverment to emphasize. And in some circumstances, though not in ours (at least not yet), "responsible goverment" could just be a euphamism for austerity.

by Peggy Klimenko on October 04, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@ Tim Watkin: " b) his reliance on the Greens and possibly I-M in a way National wasn't played a big part, I suspect. Actually, that angle's worth some more thought and another post when I get a moment."

It would have been reliance perforce, it seemed to me, rather than a whole-hearted declaration of intention to partner up. That's what I took from what I heard and saw before we went overseas. He certainly seemed to be attempting to put clear air between Labour, and Internet-Mana in particular, with the Greens in a subordinate role.

Absent actual evidence, nobody can know why people voted they way they did. All else - your non-political people, my hairdresser - is just anecdote, even if we might wish to generalise it out. I hope that somebody does do a bit of qualitative research on voting patterns. I'd certainly like to see it.

In any event, today's declaration of the final election result takes away National's "absolute" majority. Which looks like a win for MMP, the fears of many of us notwithstanding.

With regard to Cunliffe, I'd have thought his continuation as leader unexceptionable - Bill English didn't resign after National's even worse loss in 2002, after all - had it not been for his election night speech, and some bizarre comments since. How a leader handles defeat, especially on this scale, speaks to character, and in my view, what we've seen suggests that Labour would be better off if he stepped aside from the leadership contest.

by Ross on October 05, 2014

It must be soul destroying to have scrapped and fought and worked for this job and then be told he has to give up on his life-long dream of being Prime Minister one day.

You may have missed the news Tim - Cunliffe is running for Labour leader. He doesn't "have" to give up at all.

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