On the challenges facing Labour’s new leader

While some are urging Labour to take its own good time over deciding on a new leadership team, there is little reason to think that a delay would be productive, and not merely an occasion for more sniping and bloodletting instead.

After all, the election loss and Phil Goff’s subsequent resignation can hardly have come as a bolt from the blue. Labour has been facing that likelihood for the past three years. Nor are either of the main contenders unknown quantities to the Labour caucus. If anything, the caucus already has Too Much Information about both of them.

Reportedly, Finance spokesperson David Cunliffe is running for the top job with Nanaia Mahuta as his deputy. If so, the choice of Mahuta exposes just how isolated Cunliffe is within the caucus that he purports to lead. The other team likely to step up to the plate – David Parker and Grant Robertson – looks more substantial as a management team, but less capable of winning votes for Labour among the wider public. Unfortunately for Labour, it isn’t bidding to run a small government agency – a task for which Parker/Robertson would be a crackerjack duo – but the entire country.

That’s the dilemma. Cunliffe has more charisma, and outreach ability. Yet given the hostility to him from some within caucus, he would have to be watching his back 24/7 for detractors in his own ranks at a time when he needs to be uniting the caucus behind the fresh direction he intends to chart.

Just what that direction might be – and what lessons either Parker or Cunliffe have drawn from Saturday’s election result – remains something of a mystery. It is not as if they are polar opposites, ideologically speaking. Both tend to be regarded as being at the rightward end of the centre left political spectrum, on the economy at least. Both are smart enough to realise what a difficult task Labour faces to reconnect with the wider public on policy terms – and tonally as well, while in opposition.

The problems Labour faces are not confined simply to New Zealand, but are being faced by centre-left parties everywhere in the world. For now, the centre-right are in the ascendancy, for reasons the centre-left is finding difficult to counter. For one thing, centre-left political parties tend to lack a compelling narrative on the economy that voters can readily grasp. Earlier this year, the venerable British Political Quarterly put it this way:

The narrative of the right is that state spending has to be reduced, welfare stripped down, protections diminished, regulations stripped away and restrictions on business removed in order that a kind of economy can be created that is vibrant enough to survive and prosper in a world where economic power has shifted. Whatever its merits, this does offer a coherent account of a political strategy. As yet, the left does not have a narrative, strategy and programme to set against it. Simply opposing cuts is not enough.

Elsewhere in the same issue of the journal, the British Labour politician David Milliband pinpointed a further challenge. In the mid 1990s, President Bill Clinton perfected the process of triangulation, whereby the centre left pre-empted its opponents by stealing their policy positions as adjuncts to its own (and necessarily more limited) policy agenda. Welfare reform for instance, became a centre-left initiative under Clinton. Since then however, the centre-right have turned the tables on triangulation and – by using the language and style of ‘compassionate conservatism’ – they have co-opted the left’s traditional language of caring and sharing.

In the process, as Milliband says, “an electoral detoxification of the right” has occurred. On social issues, the centre right has returned from the extremist verge and occupied the centre ground, stylistically at least. “Where once centre-right parties seemed antediluvian on social issues, they embraced a new world of equal gay and women’s rights. Where they seemed in hock to the rich, they upped the rhetoric against the unacceptable face of capitalism.” At Davos last year, Milliband pointed out by way of example, it was Nicolas Sarkozy who lamented a world where “everything was given to financial capital and almost nothing to labour…”

David Cameron and John Key have learned that lesson well and tailored their message – and their agendas – accordingly. That relative moderation may leave Key’s more Neanderthal supporters in corporate New Zealand chafing at the bit, but for now, Key seems highly sensitive to the electoral consequences of confirming the old stereotypes of the centre right. On his watch, he plans to give Labour no room to depict him convincingly to middle New Zealand as a mere enabler of a market economy where people are bought and sold as commodities, and are left feeling defenceless and stranded. Key’s new brand of allegedly ‘compassionate’ conservatives don’t act that way anymore – at least, not overtly.

Key’s agenda for welfare reform may seem like an exception to the ‘softline’ approach. In fact, during these harsher economic times, the centre right has been very successful in deflecting the anxiety of a middle class fearful of downwards social mobility for themselves and their children onto beneficiaries, who have been caught in the worst of both worlds – being seen as idle by those above them on the earnings ladder, while not receiving enough in state support to live on adequately, much less to escape their dependency. In tough times, being tough to the vulnerable feels good to many middle class voters, not bad.

As a result of Key’s brilliantly successful exercise in triangulation, the scare tactics used by Labour throughout his first term rarely hit the mark. Instead, they left the opposition sounding whiny and alarmist, and preaching only to its declining flock of the converted. Whoever replaces Goff at the Labour helm has to re-calibrate the attack on Key so that it hits the real target, not the imaginary one.

That is going to be quite a challenge. As Milliband says, it will have to involve turning around what has now become– after 30 years of neo-liberalism – an entrenched hostility to the role of government. Formerly, government was seen as the rescuer of people who had been abused and marginalised by the free market:

The role of the state was to empower people, first of all through the vote, then through rights, then through services. But that argument has now been turned…The association of the left with the state has become a stick with which it is beaten ; and the very expansion of the role of government to meet popular demand has made it more vulnerable to the charge that it is a powerful ogre, and not a flimsy line of defence.

Still, Labour has no choice. By nature, it is a reformist party, not a conservative one. The Achilles heel of the Key government is always going to be its economic incompetence, and it can blame the international conditions for that ineptness for only so long. Labour therefore has to carry out its agenda of private sector reform in a way that will increase efficiency and generate wealth, while still meeting its traditional concerns about fairness and re-distribution.

Cunliffe is the high risk, high return gamble for that difficult balancing act – Parker the safer, low wattage option. (Lets not even contemplate the empty coffers of the Labour Party itself, which looks more like a mail drop these days, than a viable party with members and activists on the ground.)

Given that the achievable goal this term may be only to get Labour back within striking distance of National, it will probably be the next leader after this one who gets to form the next Labour-led government. That’s how it worked out for National in its own climb back from defeat in 2002. (Bill English was succeeded by Don Brash, before Key finally did the trick.) Seen in that light, this may be quite a good contest to lose.


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