He Came, He Grabbed, They Conquered: Labour plans to win power for itself by combining its own votes with the votes of as many of National's enemies as it can help over the line into Parliament. For the first time in the MMP era, Cunliffe plans to make the party with the second-largest number of votes the core of a governing coalition.
THE LATEST POLL RESULTS are cause for celebration on the Right and commiseration on the Left. There will be many in the National Party who are now convinced that, providing John Key’s government avoids making any serious mistakes in the remaining 117 days to Election Day, victory is assured. By the same tokens, there will be many in the Labour Party who now regard victory in September as a fading mirage. Barring some sort of miracle, they’ve already conceded the battle to National.
For the wider New Zealand community the 2014 General Election is also looking like a done deal. Those of settled conviction and strong partisan loyalties will participate once again in the democratic ritual of voting, but many citizens will question the efficacy of participating in a contest whose outcome is constantly being presented as a statistical certainty. Combine these sceptics with the perennially inert 15 percent of eligible voters who never exercise their democratic rights and it is possible – even likely – that the turnout for the 2014 election will be as low, if not lower, than the record abstention of 2011.
Analysis of the 2011 data suggests that these poll-guided abstainers are as likely to be found among the ranks of National’s voters as they are among Labour’s. That would certainly explain John Key’s playing-down of the Colmar Brunton/Reid Research figures; his anxious reiteration of the likely closeness of this year’s electoral contest; and his repeated appeals to all Centre-Right voters to get up off the couch, make their way to the nearest polling-booth – and vote.
SINCE LOSING POWER IN 2008, the Labour Opposition has had no shortage of self-appointed critics and advisers. Those who have come at this task from the Left have never wavered from the view that if Labour abandoned neoliberalism and reoriented itself towards the democratic socialist principles of its constitution, then a majority of voters would get in behind the resulting left-wing manifesto.
Moreover, so disruptive of “politics-as-usual” would such a manifesto be that even the perennially inert 15 percent of voters would be jolted out of their political apathy and the Centre-Left Vote would surge beyond the Right’s capacity to restrain it. Combined with the left-leaning abstainers of 2011, the numbers available to Labour and its allies would, potentially, be huge. With only slight exaggeration, the left-wing advocates of this “jump to the left” strategy talked about mobilising the “Missing Million” New Zealanders who did not vote.
When sceptics demanded to know what sort of policies it would take to rouse this sleeping psephological giant, the Left-jumpers pointed to the public’s, the business community’s and the news media’s reaction to the joint release of the Labour-Green energy policy in 2013. So strident was the Right’s reaction that even those who usually took no interest in politics pricked up their ears.
By releasing a series of bold and unashamedly left-wing policies, argued the Left-jumpers, Labour would goad the right-wing parties and their media allies into fostering so much jarring and polarising controversy that it would have the effect of stampeding the Non-Vote into active participation.
This is what lay behind the Left’s relentless promotion of David Cunliffe as Labour’s next leader. Unlike David Shearer, Cunliffe was willing to move beyond the orthodoxies of neoliberalism. In a series of speeches he signalled to Labour’s left-wing that the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had moved on his thinking about Global Capitalism. As far as he was concerned the Age of Small Government was over.
It was an offer the Left could not refuse.
The Labour Left’s big mistake, however, was to assume that, along with their votes, Cunliffe would also happily accept their electoral strategy. They soon discovered that their man had his own sources of advice, and that these had their own ideas about how to win the 2014 election.
Cunliffe’s inner core of advisers were less interested in the “Missing Million” of non-voters per se, than they were in the roughly 200,000 voters who’d voted for the Labour Party in 2008 but who, for whatever reason, had opted to stay home in 2011. They were confident that these people could be identified, contacted and re-engaged as electors in 2014.
Safely back in Labour’s fold, these voters would lift the party’s level of support into the mid-30s. If the Greens could hold the 11 percent of the Party Vote they’d won in 2011 and NZ First remained above the 5 percent MMP threshold, then the National Party would be squeezed out of contention. John Key’s party could be 10 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival – and still lose.
It was a high-risk strategy with very little margin for error. And, in terms of popularly understood notions of political legitimacy, it was also likely to lead New Zealand into unchartered waters. Since the first MMP election in 1996 the party winning the largest number of votes has always constituted the core of the governing coalition eventually cobbled together after the votes are counted. Cunliffe’s strategy would end that convention by making the party with the second-highest tally of votes the core of a governing coalition. While constitutionally kosher, it nevertheless exposed the resulting government to accusations that “silver and bronze had beaten gold”, and that, as a “coalition of losers”, it lacked a “moral mandate” to govern.
Not to worry. If possession really is nine-tenths of the law, then how the requisite number of seats on the floor of the House of Representatives have been cobbled together will matter much less than the fact that Cunliffe and Labour can rely upon their occupants for Votes of Confidence and Supply. Which leaves us facing the only really important question: “Is the strategy working: do the polls show Labour sitting pat on 34-36 percent of the Party Vote?”
And the answer, of course, is: “No, not at the moment.”
The National Party’s polling agency, Curia’s, time and size-weighted public polls average dated 11 May 2014 has Labour on just 30.5 percent. (A figure unlikely to improve when its proprietor, David Farrar, updates Curia’s averages by including the latest Colmar Brunton and Reid Research results.)
For Labour to be in a position to form a government from just 30 percent support the Greens would have to win an unprecedented 14-16 percent of the vote – and Winston Peters would have to come through with 6 percent-plus. Unfortunately, both Colmar Brunton and Reid Research show the Greens with considerably less than that – just 10-11 percent.
All Labour’s strategists – that is, the ones Cunliffe listens to, not the ones he ignores – can advise the party’s supporters to do now is wait and hope. The process of identifying, contacting and re-engaging the Labour abstainers of 2011 is by no means complete. And, for the strategy to work, all the other components of Labour’s 2014 campaign need to begin functioning as planned and on schedule.
It’s an enormous gamble. A sort of “Ocean’s Fourteen” political heist that has to unfold perfectly at every stage – or end in disaster. But Cunliffe, from what I hear, remains as cool as George Clooney in the Hollywood remake of Ocean’s Eleven. He still believes in his star – and, more importantly, in his staff.
All we can do now is sit back, relax, and watch the movie.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 26 May 2014.