The Great Includer: David Cunliffe's speech to the Young Labour Conference argued that politics-as-usual has failed. A prosperous future, he warned them, cannot now be built the same way as the past. It’s no longer enough “to work for our people”, said Cunliffe, “we have to work with them.”
DAVID CUNLIFFE’S SPEECH to the Young Labour Conference on Saturday ended what’s been a hellish week for the Opposition on a surprisingly defiant note.
“I believe that our people are a community, not a commodity. I believe that when the least fortunate of us does better, we all do better. I believe that in this great country no-one should be left out or left behind.”
Cunliffe is a disconcertingly happy warrior. An exile on the back benches, with the insults of his enemies still ringing in his ears, the man’s confidence that he would come back and win the leadership of his party was indomitable. Even now, in the wake of Shane Jones’s deeply damaging defection, and amidst rumours that Labour is polling in the low 20s, Cunliffe’s confidence remains undiminished.
A large part of that confidence is based on what might be called the “technological” aspects of contemporary political campaigning. Labour appears to have got its hands on something similar to the computer software that proved so crucial to both the Obama presidential campaigns. The team around Cunliffe is adamant that with this new technology they will be able to identify precisely the groups most likely to vote for Labour.
This technological fix will not, however, be enough, on its own, to secure a Labour victory. A major reason for Cunliffe’s presence at the Young Labour Conference (the largest since the late-1980s) was to reinforce the importance of the role they will play in “getting out the vote”.
The Obama Campaign’s success was not only about putting in the technological fix, but also about how efficiently the mountains of data it was crunching could be conveyed and practically applied on voter doorsteps by the tens-of-thousands of volunteers that made up its hugely effective “on-the-ground” organisation.
“Change is not a spectator sport”, Cunliffe told his youthful audience. “Our opponents are counting on young people like you, your classmates, friends and flatmates to stay home in September. They are betting on the apathy of young people like you. They are counting on your silence. We need to prove them wrong.”
Aware of their imminent dispatch onto the streets of Wellington and the Hutt Valley for an afternoon of door-knocking and political proselytising, the Labour leader told his young listeners: “The conversations you will have today are part of hundreds and thousands of personal contacts we are having all around the country.”
Data-mining plus feet on the ground.
“That is how we are going to win this election”, Cunliffe assured them. By building “a grassroots movement for change”.
Cunliffe’s confidence – symbolised by his permanently fixed cat-who’s-got-the-cream grin – strongly suggests that he’s been convinced that, on election day, this combination of improved technology and inspired grassroots organisation, which Labour intends to operate below the news media’s radar, will leave all the doom-saying pundits struggling – like the hapless Karl Rove on Fox News in 2012 – to explain why the impossible keeps happening right before their eyes.
But is the Opposition Leader’s confidence justified? If the rumours concerning poll results in the 20-25 percent range are borne out, how will Labour’s campaign maintain the high level of morale and personal commitment necessary to keep an effective get-out-the-vote operation in play?
At an even more basic level, how do Cunliffe and his advisers ensure that the demographic groups deemed “most likely” to vote Labour actually place two ticks on the ballot papers?
Recent research undertaken in the United States strongly suggests that electoral success comes to the party whose policies adhere most closely to the preferences of its political base. The progressive American writer, Dave Johnson, argues provocatively that “there is no swing block of voters between the parties”. “The lesson to learn”, he says, is that: “There are not voters who ‘swing’, there are left voters and right voters who either show up and vote or do not show up and vote. If Democrats don’t give regular, working people – the Democratic base – a reason to vote, then many of them won’t.”
What Cunliffe must decide, and quickly, is whether offsetting the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax; raising the age of eligibility for NZ Superannuation to 67; supporting the free-trade principles of the TPPA; and tinkering with the Reserve Bank Act against his party’s “Kiwibuild” housing scheme; the proposed single-buyer of electricity, New Zealand Power; and the “Best Start” support payment policy for infants; will be enough to give Labour’s base “a reason to vote”.
“I believe that politics-as-usual has failed New Zealanders”, Cunliffe told Young Labour. A prosperous future, he warned them, cannot now be built the same way as the past. It’s no longer enough “to work for our people”, said Cunliffe, “we have to work with them.”
Properly developed, that concept could give much more than Labour’s base a reason to vote.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 April 2014.