A Freight Train Called Key: On election night 1975 Bill Rowling said Muldoon's landslide victory felt like being run over by a bus. Oh what David Cunliffe would have given for that bus on 20 September 2014!
THE ANGUISH of Labour supporters on election night was expressed mostly in Anglo-Saxon. Polite English just doesn’t have the emotional range for disaster on such a lavish scale.
Unquestionably, as political disasters go, this one was a biggie.
Bill Rowling told the nation on election night 1975 (when Rob Muldoon sent Labour plummeting to the abysmal depths of 39.6 percent) that he “felt like he’d been run over by a bus”. Oh, what David Cunliffe would have given for that bus! On the night of 20 September 2014, Labour’s hapless leader must have felt like he’d been run over by a fully-laden freight train, which had then stopped and reversed back over him, just to make sure.
No wonder the poor fellow behaved bizarrely. When the political historians have to go all the way back to 1922 to find a comparable result, bizarre behaviour is probably the very least that should be expected. Because, sadly, no political leader can come back from a hiding of such career-killing severity. Sooner or later that bitter truth just had to sink home. In David Cunliffe’s case, sooner would have been better, but he got there in the end.
And now, of course, we are witnessing the contest to find his successor. Andrew Little, Nanaia Mahuta, David Parker and Grant Robertson are all vying for Labour’s top job while the rest of New Zealand looks on with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. Most cannot fathom why Labour’s caucus and the wider party organisation have opted to set about finding a new leader before determining what needs to be done to get Labour match-fit by 2017.
See above re: bizarre behaviour. By resigning the leadership when he did, Mr Cunliffe set in motion a relentless constitutional process that neither Labour’s MPs nor its New Zealand Councillors can countermand. A more rational order of events might have been assured if, on election night, Mr Cunliffe had announced his intention to stand down as leader in six months’ time – thereby permitting a thorough post-mortem of the debacle. But, he didn’t. So, they ain’t.
In the absence of any conspicuous rationality, a host of political journalists, columnists, PR specialists, bloggers and academics have hastened to proffer their well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) advice as to how the party might be resurrected. Most of this may be boiled down to: Labour lurched too far to the left. Recovery lies in the centre-ground.
Labour’s 2014 manifesto was considerably less left-wing than the manifesto it took to the country in 2011. David Cunliffe may have campaigned for the Labour leadership in fiery left-wing poetry, but he campaigned to become New Zealand’s prime-minister in the dullest, the most uninspiring and, ultimately, the most unconvincing prose.
The party’s election strategy, under both David Cunliffe and his predecessors, David Shearer and Phil Goff, had been to woo “soft” National Party voters back into Labour’s orbit. There was nothing remotely left-wing about raising the age of eligibility for superannuation. In fact, it turned Labour supporters off – in droves. The same applies to Labour’s Capital Gains Tax: a measure which even the OECD has advised New Zealand to introduce!
Labour didn’t lose the election because it was too left-wing; it lost because in an election dominated by extra-parliamentary sideshows (Dirty Politics and The Moment of Truth) it failed to get cut-through.
How does one get cut-through? Well, for a start, you hire the very best pollsters and focus-group analysts you can afford; you tell them exactly what you’re trying to do; and then you listen to them when they tell you how to do it. That’s what National and its leader, John Key, does – and it works.
There is absolutely no point in acquiring accurate intelligence about the electorate’s mood; its likes and dislikes; its hopes and fears; if you then do nothing constructive with it. A political party should never allow its policies to be dictated by polls and focus groups, but when it comes to telling a party how to present or, more importantly, how not to present its policies, they become tools of extraordinary utility. If talking about a specific policy turns voters off, then don’t talk about it!
Whoever becomes Labour’s leader needs to understand, precisely, what New Zealanders do NOT want to hear, and stop saying it to them – loudly.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 October 2014.