Hard News by Russell Brown


The Base

As is the lot of parties hurled into Opposition, picking up the morning paper has often been an unhappy experience for the Labour leadership since 2008. This morning's New Zealand Herald, though? Someone might be saving a copy of that one.

Not only is the Herald's editorial column pretty much coming after John Banks with a knife, there is a poll showing a substantial leap in support for the Labour Party.

Things are a little more nuanced than that, of course -- the Greens' support is down on the last Digipoll poll, National is down but still attracting more support than it did at last year's general election -- but in a week when the drumbeat about David Shearer's future as leader had become fairly loud, the poll result is very welcome news indeed.

No one was beating louder, naturally, than David Farrar, whose sense of mischief is as keen as his desire to distract attention from the government's Banks problem. In a post yesterday headed The Cunliffe Speech, he gleefully dissected the address given the previous day by Labour's spurned leadership candidate, David Cunliffe.

Much as it might have vexed the Labour faithful, Farrar's analysis was sound on its key points: everything about the speech, from its location to the invited guests, to -- most of all -- its contents gave the impression of an appeal to Labour's disgruntled activist base. If the party stalwarts have fallen as far out of love with Shearer as everyone says, then Cunliffe was coming a-courting.

It's a cracking speech -- and authentic in the sense that it is clearly delivered in Cunliffe's voice. Some of it is on the current party message, especially with respect to asset sales. Some of it is a remarkable mea culpa:

The major reason that voters didn't vote for Labour, and sometimes didn't vote at all, is simply that Labour failed to inspire voters that it was a credible alternative to National.

This is very probably true. And regaining some of the aura of stewardship that saw Labour through three terms under Clark is a key task for the party. Many voters might now be queasy about the character of John Key's government, but for so long as Key presents himself as the safer pair of hands, they will hold their noses and vote for him.

But did Labour really lose last year because it had shifted too far to the centre? Because its policies "were mostly the same as National’s"? That's a much more dicey proposition, given that under Goff Labour was more of a left-wing party than it was in government under Clark.

When Cunliffe declares that "the economic policies of the last 30 years have mostly been an unmitigated disaster," and assails "the economic insanity of the last three decades", he's talking about the policies of a party he joined and represented right up to Cabinet level. Could he not have said something sooner?

He's certainly identifying the enemies now. He names them: Rupert Murdoch, Fay and Richwhite (skipping past, for the moment, the fact that Fay and Richwhite would be the beneficiaries of any move to prevent Crafar Farms being sold to foreign interests). And fair enough. But I doubt this is the language Cunliffe would be taking to the public. He's addressing the party faithful, no more so than in this passage:

Labour has a new leader with strong values, who’s focused on reconnecting with the voters and has the courage to stand up to bullies. It’s up to us, as a Party, to share with our leader, our hopes, our fears and our dreams, to reconstruct the Party from within, to reclaim our natural constituency of decent, ordinary New Zealanders who believe in fairness and hard work.

Cunliffe is urging the party to "share with our leader" the kind of ideas he laid out in the speech -- clearly implying that the leader requires such guidance. This is an appeal to a party base that feels itself marginalised, and in that sense it's an appeal to the very factional struggles that reliably turn off potential Labour voters.

With Shearer bouyed at least for now, Labour would do well to try and meld the personal ambition that seems to boil under its surface to a shared political ambition. That may well mean letting Cunliffe back in the tent. More than anyone in his present caucus, he has the goods to present an economic strategy -- and to make a case for a better regulatory environment (not that this will be easy -- even for voters on the left, the perception of Labour as a controlling force is unappealing).

And Shearer? He hasn't struggled because he's seen as too right-wing: he's struggled because he's not really seen as anything. His difficulty in communicating effectively has seen the party waste one opportunity after another. If he's to develop momentum beyond a single happy poll, that will have to change.

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