Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Leader Labour Needs To Win?

Future Tense: Articulate, good-humoured, open to new ideas and smart enough to turn them into credible policy, Cunliffe looks every inch the leader Labour needs to win.

IS IT POSSIBLE that Chris Carter is right? Would Labour have a better chance of winning the next election under a new leader? Is Phil Goff really the best, or even, as most political commentators emphatically insist, the only option available? And if, as those same commentators contend, Labour cannot win under Mr Goff’s leadership, does that mean Labour cannot win – full stop?

A few days ago I would have conceded (albeit reluctantly) that those commentators were more likely to be proved right than wrong. And I use the word "reluctant" advisedly, because I count myself among Mr Goff’s long-time supporters.

As far back as February 2008 I was urging the Labour caucus to persuade Helen Clark to step aside in favour of her Defence Minister. It was clear to me then that the ties binding the Labour-led Government to its core supporters were becoming dangerously frayed, and that only by installing a new leader more in tune with the values and attitudes of traditional Labour voters could the election be won.

But, Labour did then what it shows every sign of doing now: it dug in and hoped for the best. And, as so many of the Government’s supporters feared, their "best" was nowhere near good enough. That Ms Clark relinquished the party leadership on election night, and then organised Mr Goff’s effective coronation as her successor, can only be read as a tacit admission that the "out-of-tune with Labour’s core supporters" argument was correct.

Swift and efficient though it undoubtedly was, Mr Goff’s unchallenged accession to Labour’s leadership did the party very little good. Centre-Left political organisations don’t generally opt to transfer power in the fashion of a feudal monarchy. "The Queen is dead. Long live the King!" is a curious approach for a party whose constitution still proudly upholds to the principles of "Democratic Socialism".

In an ideal world, Ms Clark would have remained in place for the six months following her election defeat and used the time to muse very publicly about the love Labour lost. She’d have offered apologies to all and sundry and generally encouraged the broader labour movement to engage in a wide-ranging debate on the party’s future direction. Only then would she have signalled her departure, and invited Labour’s most talented parliamentarians to slug it out.

At least that way the voting public would have been able to tell which of Labour’s long-dormant factions "had the numbers". Would it be Clark’s social-liberal faction? Or would the defection (and abstention) of so many of Labour’s traditional voters persuade the Caucus to throw its weight behind a more socially conservative candidate?

Waging this fight out in the open may have been embarrassing for the Party, but, when it was over one faction, after a long and very lively debate, would have emerged victorious with a clear mandate. More importantly, the new leader would’ve been free to strike out in a new direction without having to worry about being white-anted by the losing side.

As it is, the factional in-fighting continues to seethe – just not where the voting public can see it. At best, we have caught brief glimpses of the main dividing-lines.

When Mr Goff attempted to harness growing public concern over the National-led Government’s handling of Maori-Pakeha relations, for example, the social-liberals in his caucus very publicly over-ruled him. And when he indicated that he wasn’t all that fussed about workers voluntarily trading away the fourth week of their annual leave, the former trade unionists in his caucus laid about his head with great force.

Everything we have seen since the 2008 election points to a deadlocked Labour caucus in which no one faction possesses the numbers – or leadership – to give either the party, or the country, the clear new direction it so desperately needs.

There are only two ways that Labour’s factions can resolve this impasse: the first is to wage a long and bitter war of attrition (as the Australian Labor factions did between 1996 and 2006) and be left with whoever is the last man (or woman) standing; or, to swallow their pride and, ignoring faction, elect the person best equipped both intellectually and presentationally to lead them to victory in 2008.

Last Saturday morning, on TV3’s The Nation, David Cunliffe demonstrated conclusively that he is that person. Articulate, good-humoured, open to new ideas and smart enough to turn them into credible policy, Cunliffe looked every inch the leader Labour needs to win.

The conventionally wise insist that he lacks sufficient allies to mount a successful challenge. But, from the perspective of Labour’s deadlocked caucus, Mr Cunliffe’s absence of factional baggage may yet prove to be his most telling political advantage.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 August 2010. 

22 comments:

PC said...

Whatever his other attributes might be, Cunliffe has one serious impediment that should rule him out as serious Prime Ministerial material: his personality.

Robert Winter said...

Mr Cunliffe is a serious option. I happen to agree that he is probably the best at present. There is a layer below him in terms of experience - Grant Robertson, for example - that will challenge in due course, but if there was need for a transition now, Mr Cunliffe is the only serious contender. I think that you are over-emphasising the factions argument. They exist, but are markedly less prominent than was the case, and the focus on winning deflates traditional faction feelings and reinforces the pragmatics of who can win for Labour. The party is getting older, and the memories of the 1980s are fading (1984 was 26 years ago, after all). One hears old guarders reminiscing about, for example, the anti- or pro-Prebble issue, but younger members have no time for it. However, the key issue is that I can detect no serious interest in a coup against Mr Goff. As things seem to be turning against National on many fronts, and as the polls indicate a slight improvement in Labour's position, the likelihood of conspiracy will, I suggest, decline. The only scenario that I can see at present giving rise to such a conspiracy would be some catastrophic error on Mr Goff's part, which is unlikely.

Chris Trotter said...

To "PC":

"Personality" - at least as it is experienced by a politician's colleagues - is a relatively unimportant factor in deciding who should be the leader of a political party.

Rob Muldoon struck abject terror into many of his colleagues - but none disputed that he was the only person who could return National to office in 1975.

Tony Blair was a simpering little snake, but he was also the perfect representative of the English middle classes' longing to be be rid of Thatcherism without returning to the cloth-cap "Clause 4" socialism of the 1970s and 80s.

With Tony the BLP could win - without him that outcome was much less certain.

Hence his elevation to the leadership.


To Robert:

Clark's great achievement was to quell factionalism within the Labour Caucus - and to keep it quelled - for 15 long years.

With her departure, however, the factions have returned.

My great fear is that Phil (who I freely acknowledge to be an emminently electable Labour leader) will be (is being?) prevented from saying and doing the things necessary to win because of factional pressures.

The rather paradoxical point I'm making is that Cunliffe, precisely because he seems to be equally mistrusted and/or disliked by virtually all his caucus colleagues - people who will, nevertheless, and almost in the same breath, happily acknowledge that he is very bright, very articulate and a very good TV performer - may be the ideal candidate for party leader.

Just think of Kevin Rudd, who was loathed by his Labor colleagues but loved (up until he made such a show of abandoning his principles) by the Australian people.

What NZ Labour needs to think about is this.

The Aussies spent ten years in Opposition, working their way through all the people who couldn't be leader, before they finally gave up advancing candidates from their own factions, and turned to someone who could actually win an election.

Does the NZ Labour caucus intend to do the same? Or has it the wit to ask itself not: "Who will my colleagues vote for?" But: "Who will New Zealanders vote for?"

Robert Winter said...

Maybe we are saying the same thing about factions. They are there, but that "15 years" has redefined and tempered them.

I also think that the internal view on Mr Cunliffe, is slowly changing. His obvious ambition put a lot off in the past - I've seen it present in many meetings - but he's been diligently doing his job (and well), keeping his head down, doing hard yards in Fabian and branch meetings and generally scrubbing up better and better. I see him in two lights in the party - a blockage to some ambitious people in parliament, but an increasingly toothsome option for the wider party membership (and the wider voting public?). He's making a more than respectable fist of the economic portfolio.He's also being meticulously loyal to Mr Goff,which one can read in any number of ways.If you asked me, the next leadership team in Labour will look something like Cunliffe-Street, but I may be gloriously wrong!

Anonymous said...

Very good article Chris and I very much agree. (I am surprised you have suddenly come around to this point of view though as only a week or so ago I saw you on TV saying that Labour should stay with Goff?)

Cunliffe would give Key a real challenge next election and I believe Key would come off second best. Cunliffe is a fresh face, is intelligent, articulate and quick on his feet and could sell Labour policies to a whole bunch of people who have currently given up on Labour.

National have been an appalling government- their record is pretty indefensible-their only redeeming feature for most people is that they aren't the last Labour government. If Goff and King went, the reminders of the last Labour government would quickly fade and people might look afresh at the party.

I personally wouldn't vote for Labour under Goff- he is forever associated with the 1980's in my mind. I might seriously consider voting for Labour under Cunliffe though.

Chris Trotter said...

You're quite right, Anonymous, I WAS defending Phil just a couple of weeks ago. What changed my thinking was his excellent performance on "The Nation".

Cunliffe's relaxed-but-authoritative demeanour is exactly the combination to advance against Key's relaxed-but-superficial style.

He'd cream him.

Chris Trotter said...

I'm thrilled to read that news, Robert.

I guess it's the thought of how much damage a National Government, in possession of a "mandate" to unleash yet another round of radical neo-liberal "reforms", could do before a Cunliffe-led Labour Party could get itself elected that's got me feeling jumpy.

Labour winning in 2011 is very important. If the Nat's get a second term there'll be bugger-all left to save!

Anonymous said...

I don't think Cunliffe could beat Key. Kiwis seem to like superficial, and Key's ratings are horribly high. Cunliffe is not popular within the Labour caucus? This speaks volumes in itself. He probably is a really nice guy etc, but he does come across as smug and sanctimonious. I laughed at the part of your post that said that Helen should have been persuaded to give up the leadership six months before the election (or similar), as if Helen would have done that! Now she wants to head the UN, and I bet she'll achieve that, along with Key's backing. You are spot on saying that Key is superficial, I don't get why voters like him so much, for me, he grates. Helen was oh so controlling, but she was never weak. Cunliffe is nice looking and articulate, alright. Key is so bland, and Breakfast on TV every Monday is nothing but a touchy, feely, laugh with the PM love-fest. Boring.

RedLogix said...

Every sound govt needs intelligent, loyal people who understand Parliament, sound judgement and a proven record as a safe pair of hands. Goff fits that description to a tee; he'd make a fine Minister and serve Labour well again, but something in my gut (and it gives me no pleasure to say it) tells me he'll not win an election as party leader. At least not unless Key takes a fall of Rudd-like proportions.

Goff's s a decent, capable man and if perchance he was elected PM he'd acquit himself well, but he'd be another Jimmy Carter. Better loved after the event than during it.

The wishful part of me kind of hopes Goff has the insight and humility to recognise this, and hand over the reigns to Cunliffe in an orderly manner. A big ask I guess...

Lew said...

Well, Chris, we're back to agreeing again.

Contra PC, I think Cunliffe's personality is a sterling asset. He is personable, pleasant even, in a natural way Clark never was, and Goff rarely is. He has wits and economic policy chops like Cullen, but without the tendency to snarkily talk down to everyone without a PhD in economic history (and most of those with one).

I reckon he has two cosmetic disadvantages at present: on paper, to an undiscerning viewer, he looks a little bit like a bleeding-heart social-democrat version of Mr Key: nice (to a fault), with a cheery disposition and a nominally economic (rather than social or cultural) skill-set and policy focus. In this he will have trouble with the media, who will likely resort to such trivial comparisons instead of more rigorous analysis. But if these can be overcome his command of policy matters and public-sphere political technique is far superior to Key's; in a head-to-head contest he ought to be able to wipe the floor with key on either of those points, and unlike Clark he'll wear a winning smile while doing so. On this we agree entirely.

Secondly, and even more superficially, his nickname around the traps, and even within Parliament is 'Silent T'; a reference not only to his name, but to an arrogance he purportedly bears -- as Chris says, an authoritative air. It's ridiculous that this should matter, but the less scrupulous enemies of the left -- we all know the sort -- will hang a symbolic hate campaign on any hook they can find.

Can't say I hold much hope of a 2011 win under any circumstances, though.

L

Madison said...

Good idea, but. The problem is that Goff is still trying to remove some of the 'Arrogant Left' image that led to National winning in the first place. While I think both parties are run by out of touch people at the very top, National has taken a page from the Republicans in the US. They ask the public. Not through TV, but through opening submissions, through letters from MPs and such.

Since re-enrolling to vote I've received 7 pieces of mail from Labour all telling me what they do, why they are better for me and that if NZ is to have any hope or I am to be happy then I vote Labour. One even mentioned me as a new member of the party. I've received 2 letters from National, 1 welcoming me to the rolls and mentioning who the list MP in my area was should I have any questions, and 1 was a survey asking me what issues concern me and what I felt they should work on.

Registered as an independent voter this is a huge public relations coup. As an intelligent person I don't believe National will really listen to what I say, but putting that ear within reach is something Labour hasn't done, at least in my neighborhood (which happens to be poor, a real Labour area.) For swing voters I see that as a tactic that is winning.

Goff is stuck with the after-image of Helen Clark behind him when everyone sees him on TV and I don't think he's to blame. I don't doubt he's loyal to the party but I'm wondering if auntie Helen didn't select him because following her was always going to damage that person's image. I think many people need time to cool away from Clark and her regime and that Goff is merely a placeholder until the next person can step in once the party's image has been polished back up to remove Clark's touches. Cunliffe sounds great, but Labour needs to work hard on more than the leadership issue if they're to turn around quickly enough to remove National next year.

Chris Trotter said...

You say you're "registered as an independent voter", Madison.

Where? In the USA?

It is not possible to register as anything other than a straightforward "elector" in New Zealand - the only "choice" you are given is whether to register on the General or the Maori Roll.

Once again, my doubts are raised about exactly who and what you are, Madison, and precisely WHERE you are commenting from.

Sanctuary said...

"...Labour winning in 2011 is very important..."


I am pretty sure Labour will lose in 2011 insofar as it will have less seats than National, but the question is can we stop National winning? Can we ensure we keep MMP and national doesn't have a right wing majority in the house after 2011 that will allow it to follow a radical privatisation agenda? Will Winston yet again be critical to stopping the hard right juggernaut?

Madison said...

I comment in NZ, I am independent as I am not a member of either party and I am on the General roll. My point is that Labour has twice tried to tell me that I am a member of the Labour party, something that is both false and irritating. This is the type of thing that caused swing voters to push National into power. Assumption of these types of things makes for publicity problems when people start to feel that a party isn't listening to them.

Anonymous said...

It seems to be a foregone conclusion amongst Labour voters that they cannot win with Phil Goff at the helm. So why exactly are they not looking to David Cunliffe? If Labour arent inspired about the next election then how can they expect the general public to be. It is so depressing.

Chris Trotter said...

Just checking, Madison, just checking.

And - just so you know - NZ's proportional representation electoral system means that, unlike the US, you are not limited to choosing one of the two major parties.

You could vote Green or NZ First (probably) in 2011 - and your ballot would not be in any sense be "wasted".

Madison said...

Yes, I actually like NZ's proportional system, but I think NZ First is still drifting towards segregational territory. Unlike many of the people I left back in "Merka" (as it is jokingly called sometimes) I don't like to pay much attention to party allegiances and would rather focus on what a candidate can do and actually does, not so much party ideas.

But here I'm having to learn that MP's don't get to choose as much as they want to and mostly are forced to vote party lines rather than their conscience or electorate. This means that no, I would most likely not vote National as I think the leaders there have no real ideas to fix the country and that voting Labour most often means adding another Ministry and 8 layers of beauracracy to everything. This leaves me nothing but smaller parties, oddly enough the same selection process that left me with the 'third' parties in the US.

I like it here and I suspect that should we meet face to face we'd agree on lots, and I still think the biggest problem facing NZ is general apathy towards what the government is doing and apathy towards improving things for everyone.

But besides that, who could really vote for Winston Peters, the man looks like a rehydrated sultana and makes about the same level of comment.

Carol said...

Madison, today I got a leaflet in my mailbox, the Winter 2010 edition of "Cunliffe Courier" (which kind of made me giggle) - "Post-budget special". Cunliffe's image at the top, front page, looks very personable.

Ihe first article/item is labelled "Labour's been listening". It begins, "Labour's been out listening to communities around New Zealand". There's a quote from Goff saying people have been talking to him about the tough year there has been.

Actually, I also thought Labour had asked online a few months back, for people to post their ideas of what they see as crucial for them to focus on. The "Cunliffe Courier" does briefly lay out a variety of areas they aim to focus on. I am interested to see that, as the media hasn't always provided this information, in a clear and coherent way.

At the end of the leaflet there's a survey, which I can post back to Labour freepost, or I can do it online here:

labour.org.nz/survey

.... though I'm not sure why Cunliffe is listed under "Epsom" on that page? The survey is focused on New Lynn & Auckland issues.

I had got the idea in the past that Goff and other Labour MPs had been out and about talking to people around the country.

I haven't had anything equivalent lately from National. I am planning to vote Cunliffe again for my electorate, as the best candidate on offer. I haven't made up my mind about whether I prefer Cunliffe or Goff as a leader/PM (or neither). I also haven't made up my mind about my party vote, though I'm still leaning to Green.

However, I do think this leaflet has a friendly and positive feel, with photos of both Cunliffe and Goff engaging with workers and the community.

PS: at the same time I got a leaflet from Len Brown. So suddenly, it all seems to be happening.

Anonymous said...

Chris, you wrote some time ago how the fault with Labour was that they lost the support of "Waitakere Man".
Nobody should replace Goff unless the Labour caucus is confident that the new person wil regain "Waitakere Man".
SJL

Madison said...

First, the major idea I seem to have buried in my first post here was the idea that Goff was set up as a fall guy originally. Someone to hold the party together while it reorganized and a strong leader capable of taking the lead and pushing the factions back together emerged. I think this is what he has done and what he has been exposed to. I didn't like Helen Clark but she was a very strong leader who worked hard to keep Labour a semi-unified force and powerful. Anyone following that act immediately after a lost election is in a no-win situation and Goff is doing what he can with a limited ability to lead.

I think it was and is a big challenge to try to re-energize Labour and focus the powers of the party to regaining control of Parliament within 1 term. There needed to be some major mistakes made by National and despite the mistakes they've made and bad laws they're pushing through they've gauged how to spread them out and Labour has been semi-paralysed by their in-fighting. It will take someone with a dash of Charisma, quick wit and a good TV style to start truly stealing votes from Key and it will take an iron will to pull Labour together within that time and I don't think Goff has any of it. I don't know the man and haven't met him, but my exposure is similar to that of the average voter and he just doesn't seem to have that personable image on TV. It's a sad state that such an attribute can effect such a change but that's the world we live in.

We both believe that there has to be a more serious alternative to Phil Goff, just differ on the reasons why he's had such trouble.

Victor said...

Smell the coffee, guys!

There's nothing wrong with Phil Goff as a potential Prime Minister, except that our scandalously biased Tory media think there is everything wrong with him.

Excessive intelligence apart, there would be nothing wrong with David Cunliffe as Prime Minister, except that our scandalously biased Tory media will ensure that voters think there is everything wrong with him.

It might be unjust, but all that egg-head Harvard background and penchant for subordinate clauses would almost certainly prove the kiss of death.

Come to that, there wasn't much wrong with the Helen 'n Mike show except that etc. etc.

Out in the suburbs, there aren't all that many people listening to detailed policy debate or willing to consider alternatives to monetarism as a way of surviving recession.

Moreover, no-one apart from insiders cares about Labour's internal wars. Few of us know who's right and who's left. Nor, in today's climate, would many have much idea of what 'left' or 'right' mean.

Our current media-driven political culture favours the bland, the flash and the intellectually undemanding. It also favours candidates and parties that will make the rich richer.

It's instructive that TVNZ chooses to put Q&A on of a Sunday morning when there are few viewers and few valuable advertisers to appease with ratings. Ditto for the Nation's slots.

Meanwhile, the totally nonsensical myth about Labour having ruined the economy has become an axiomatic platitude.

Whoever it chooses as leader, Labour faces an uphill struggle over the next several parliamentary terms.

The ball's in National's court. But it can still lose office through self-inflicted wounds. My guess is that the current government's ineptitude will start to tell badly around half way through the next parliament.

Meanwhile, the excellent Mr Cunnliffe needs to be told to keep his jacket unbuttoned in the studio, to prevent the collar riding up his neck. It's on absurd details such as this that his career might depend.

Anonymous said...

Will he be addressing the the thousands of potential Labour voters gathering on the 21st?