Borne Aloft: It wasn't Love that lifted Labour up where it belonged in 1984, but a branch membership of 85,000. If Labour's boosters are right, and Labour's membership has soared miraculously to the levels of 30 years ago, then why is the party registering barely 30 percent in the opinion polls? The David Lange-led Labour Party won 43 percent of the popular vote in 1984 on a record turn-out of 93.7 percent of registered voters. David Cunliffe should be so lucky!
STALLED AT 30 PERCENT in the polls, Labour is still pretending it can win the General Election without help. Bluntly speaking, the party is in a state of serious, collective denial. The most frightening aspect of which, from the perspective of those New Zealanders seeking a change of government in September, is that while the condition persists National cannot possibly be defeated. Heedless, the Labour Party continues to fly from the reality of its own poor performance. Even worse, it’s begun flying from the reality of its own history.
Over the past few weeks Labour’s boosters have begun to brag that the party’s membership is the highest it has been in 30 years.
Let’s just pause for a moment and unpick that statement.
Thirty years ago, in June 1984, the “ordinary” or “branch” membership of the NZ Labour Party stood at 85,000. In addition to these card-carrying members, an additional 12,500 individuals were contributing regularly to the party’s “Victory For Labour” fund. The trade union affiliate membership of the Labour Party, in that era of mass union membership, stood somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000.
With this vast membership, organised into hundreds of branches across the country, it is not difficult to understand why the registered voter turnout in the snap election of 1984 was a record 93.7 percent. Nor is it surprising to learn that even in a First-Past-the-Post election featuring four serious contenders (Labour, National, Social Credit and Bob Jones’s New Zealand Party) the David Lange-led Labour Party secured 43 percent of the votes cast.
Knowing this, and hearing Labour’s present leadership boast about the party having more members than it had in 1984 is, understandably, a little jarring. Yes, the party benefited hugely from the influx of members that accompanied last September’s Leadership Election. Membership may well have doubled, as many boosters insist. But even if that’s true, the current membership total is still relatively modest. The best estimates place it somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 – well short of that mid-80s peak.
(There is, of course, a chance that my informants’ estimates are wrong. Something Labour could verify in an instant by releasing its full membership details to the news media.)
I am concentrating on Labour’s putative numbers because they form the basis for David Cunliffe’s increasingly wacky optimism.
He is being told that with this vastly expanded army of volunteers at his back, and with a software package capable of identifying the voters Labour needs to win, the party’s parlous position in the polls, and its crippling lack of funds, will, on Election Day, be gloriously transcended and, in the rich glow of victory, the pundits will be required to eat a heapin’ helpin’ of Crow.
But Mr Cunliffe should do the math.
Only 10 percent of any membership base should ever be counted on to make a consistent contribution to the cause. Back in 1984 that rule-of-thumb gave the party organisation around 10,000 reliable activists on the ground. An average of 105 activists per electorate. That same rule, applied to the best estimates of the party’s membership base, yields Labour just 28 activists per electorate in 2014.
Mr Cunliffe is being spun a fantasy. Twenty-eight activists per electorate simply cannot lift Labour’s level of support from 30 percent to 43 percent of the popular vote. Believing Labour can replicate the extraordinary effort and turnout of 1984 is an exercise in collective delirium.
It ain’t gonna happen.
When Mr Cunliffe openly acknowledges that he will only become Prime Minister with the backing of the Greens and the Internet-Mana Party, Labour will have taken the first important step towards political recovery.
When he takes the public into his confidence about the range of policies he would be prepared to live with in the interests of building a strong coalition government, then the voters will begin to extend their trust.
When Labour casts aside Winston Peters’ absurd notion that voters are somehow advantaged by being required to buy a pig in a poke – only getting to see exactly what sort of pig, and what sort of poke, when it’s too late for them to do anything about either – will the electorate recover the power to determine the content of their preferred coalition government’s mandate before the election.
At the heart of Labour’s political malady lies the crooked notion that the right to govern is theirs and theirs alone. That, having been withheld from them by the ignorance of the electorate, they have only to wait for the voters, pricked by their consciences, to hand power back to them, unexamined and untouched, so that they may resume their governance of the country from precisely the point where they were so rudely and ungratefully required to give it up.
Not surprisingly, the Government’s opponents are taking precautions against such political insanity.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 June 2014.
The Labour Party at local level is moribund, peopled by the cliques that form around members and candidates and active mostly through fundraisers at which the same few members meet and socialise. There is no sense of urgency or common purpose. Its leadership seems unaware the party is dying. The Liberals and Reform invite Labour to join them.
Labour has been squeezed into the middle by the Greens. Resentment drives it to the right. Clark preferred accommodation with N Z First to an alliance with the Greens. What Labour MPs said about the Greens in those days is equalled by what some of them say about Internet Mana now.
What Cunliffe really thinks in unknowable, but in but disdaining open agreement with the Greens and others on the left he has relinquished leadership of the left side of politics. A Grand Coalition of Labour and National is a possibility, not in 2014, when the usual suspects will prop up the government, but in 2017, when Labour is a rump in isolation from the left of politics.
I think that it is not hard to explain why the Labour membership is higher than the level of its support in the polls would suggest. Trade unions enrol their members as members of the party and this must boost their numbers. In general political parties are not widely supported in the way they used to be. Politicians are not so much supported as tolerated.
Chris, you know far more about the workings of politics in general and the Labour Party in particular than I do, but even I know that they have to put on a front during an election year. Admitting that they weren't going to win would reduce their vote considerably :-). Whether in the deepest darkest recesses of their minds they really believe it is another matter.
What are they supposed to do?
A bare majority of New Zealanders are doing fine via the Key government; hardly anyone in New Zealand thinks much about politics; and the left are fairly disorganised.
There just are not enough people in New Zealand who oppose the government strongly enough to carry the election. This has been obvious for ages.
The idea that Labour could be in coalition with the Greens, IMP, and NZF is a joke. The more likely that looks to happen, the more likely it is that moderate voters will switch to National.
The election is a tedious snorefest with a predetermined outcome. Wake us up when it's over.
The fact that Labour can, on present polling, only win the election with the active support of Greens and IMP pretty much ensures that it won't happen.
I could live with a Labour government, but believe a Labour-Green-IMP coalition would be an unqualified disaster. I doubt if I'm the only voter who thinks that.
I think you're stretching it a bit in terms of your 1984 comments. Social credit and the NZ party "serious contenders", hardly.
nd in 1984 there was no third party with 10%, as the greens didn't form until 1990. Therein lies Labour's problem. Under FPP undoubtedly most of the Green voters would vote Labour taking it over 40%. Unfortunately, the Greens whether they like it or not tend to scare off middle ground voters who otherwise might switch from National to Labour. Strategically, Labour is right to distance itself from the smaller left leaning parties in order to try and win more of the center vote.
Of course it can only be in government with the Greens, etc but it gains nothing in terms of votes and potentially loses votes by cosying up to them before the election, anyone can see that.
Also, in regards to Winston, why do you have such a problem with the way he operates. It's not a question of giving voters preferred partners choices before the election. Winston is simply saying if you want NZFirst in government then vote for them if not then don't. How does this possibly affect voters who support other parties? Are you saying that a Labour voter might vote instead for NZFirst if they thought that NZFirst preferred Labour as a potential coalition partner? If they were to do that then they would be fools.
As for polls, they still use landlines and it is far more likely that left leaning voters don't have a landline than National party voters. Everybody I know will be voting left and none of them have a landline and in fact none of them have ever been polled. The only people I know with a landline are right leaning voters like my Dad.
>>A Grand Coalition of Labour and >>National is a possibility, not in >>2014, when the usual suspects will >>prop up the government, but in >>2017, when Labour is a rump in >>isolation from the left of >>politics.
Nonsense. National exists to oppose Labour - it's why it was founded. As for Labour, its party base is very different from either National or the Greens (hint: poor people don't vote Green), and even the most self-centred time-server would realise that a Grand Coalition would destroy the Party.
I don't know about you, Chris, but I find it a bit galling to have David Cunliffe talking gravely about what a danger coat tailing represents to democracy here in NZ while on the same day his foreign affairs spokesperson seems to skating over the real and massive distortion of democracy in our closest neighbour:
In 1984 the NZ Party received 12.6 percent of the popular vote and Social Credit 7.3 percent.
In the previous election (1981), Social Credit had received 20.7 percent.
Very much a "serious contender".
You make a compelling case, Scott.
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