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September 9, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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In the Red

In one week, the New Zealand Labour Party will have a new leader. As the candidates tour the country touting their credentials to the Party faithful, pronouncing their loyalty and otherwise waving their CVs about, Salient took the opportunity to find out why one of New Zealand’s two major political parties has spent five years in the political doldrums, with no escape seemingly imminent. Ollie Neas investigates.

The choice facing the Labour Party is a choice between three.

There is David Cunliffe, the charismatic and/or smarmy Kevin Rudd–esque MP for New Lynn; popular in Auckland but purportedly despised by half the caucus. Then there is Grant Robertson, MP for Wellington Central, with roots in Helen Clark’s administration. While popular with the Labour caucus, some suggest Robertson may be too downright Wellington for the job—oh, and he’s gay. And lastly, there is Shane Jones, the no-nonsense list MP, noted for his metaphor-saturated oratory, but still tainted by the ‘blue movies’ scandal of 2010, in which he was found to have charged up to 50 hotel porn films to his ministerial credit card while on ministerial business.

Speaking at town halls and marae at a series of 12 hustings across the country, each of the trio have sought to position themselves within a broader, distinctly ‘Labour’ story.

In Levin, Robertson and Jones nominated New Zealand’s fourth Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, as their inspiration. Despite passing away of a heart attack only 21 months into office in 1974, Kirk was cited for his vision of a secure and equal New Zealand in which all would have, as Robertson explained, “somewhere to work, somewhere to live, someone to love and something to hope for”. Cunliffe, however, went for the Top Dog, nominating father of the welfare state, Michael Joseph Savage, Prime Minister from 1935 to 1940, as the man who he sought to emulate.

These bold declarations were to place the candidates within a proud and powerful narrative, the narrative of a proud and powerful political institution. However, anyone following New Zealand politics over the last five years could be forgiven for disbelieving that Labour was any such thing.

Since John Key’s National government was elected in 2008—that’s half a decade ago, think about that—Labour has floundered. They have turned over two new leaders—first Goff, then Shearer—and have flailed hopelessly in the polls. Their first term in opposition saw their support drop to 27 per cent. Since then, it has only recently reached the level with which they lost in 2008—33 per cent.

Their opposition, the governing National Party, has stayed consistently popular, currently chugging along at around 47 per cent, and Prime Minister Key, essentially synonymous with the party he leads, particularly so.

But while Key is popular, he is an increasingly wide target.

The recently passed GCSB legislation provoked widespread ire. The economic windfall that was promised as justification for the selling of state assets has failed to come to fruition. Caregiving pay for parents of disabled children has been limited with a constitutionally questionable inability to review. The ability for citizens to protest at sea has been curtailed. And proposed changes to employment law pose a threat to the ability of the working class to collectively bargain with employers. A recent Fairfax poll even suggests that only 23 per cent of Kiwis actually believe what Key says.

It is hard, then, to see Labour’s lack of success as being a product solely of John Key’s success.


As David Shearer resigned as Labour leader, John Key issued a warning—as is his tendency—over talkback radio.

“We’re going to have three weeks of a reality TV show,” he told RadioLIVE. “They’re a pretty deeply divided caucus. At the end, someone will emerge, they’ll tell the public ‘we’re all unified’. That’ll be nonsense. They’ll be no more unified than they were, and there’ll be another year of fighting and undermining.”

This is, of course, largely lowball scare-tactic speculation, but the key message—that Labour is divided—is a message made by the candidates themselves. Upon announcing that he would seek the leadership, Robertson stated that this was “because I think I can unify our party”. Cunliffe and Jones echoed this.

No political party—save, perhaps, for the Winston Peters echo chamber known as New Zealand First—are free from internal division. Indeed, robust internal debate is necessary if any political enterprise is to stay relevant. But Labour’s faction woes are far from new—the party is notorious for them.

As political journalist Colin James, writing for the Otago Daily Times last week, explains, Labour is a party of six tendencies. There is “an old left, wanting the 1970s back; ageing 1970s social liberals; 1980s-type ‘identity’ politicos pushing the special interests of women […], gays, ethnic minorities, the disabled; the 1990s ‘third-wayers’ who tried to accommodate Labour to market-liberalism; the Maori dimension; and those groping for a way to apply Labour principles to the 2020s.”

This is no revelation, but given the values Labour serves to embody, this disunity is puzzling.

Labour is, and has been since its inception in 1916, New Zealand’s major party of the political left. Despite the limitations of the left–right dichotomy, being ‘left’ does mean something, as the common threads in the promises made by Robertson, Jones and Cunliffe indicate, as they spoke in town halls like that in Levin.

The pledges made to tackle child poverty, reduce unemployment, bring a 50/50 gender split to the Labour caucus, and to implement a living wage for public employees, aptly captures the ideology of the left. The focus is on the combatting of oppression and inequality, worker’s rights, and the willingness of government to intervene to achieve these ends. By (some kind of) contrast, the political right—embodied in moderate form by the National Party, and more radically by ACT—places greater focus on the self-reliance of the individual and greater faith in the market, as opposed to government, to reward those who deserve it.

It may seem ironic then that Labour, the party which espouses unity, solidarity and the collective, is notoriously disunited.

However, Dr Jon Johansson, Senior Lecturer of Political Science and a political scientist at Victoria University, thinks that this factionalism is an inevitable trait of the left.

“There is more intellectual energy on the left, which means there is more disagreement,” he explains. “The right are content to inherit their policy. They will tinker with the status quo but very rarely do they try to transform it.”

David Farrar, the former National Party staffer behind the immensely popular Kiwiblog, broadly agrees—if cynically so.

“Many on the left care more,” Farrar says. “They’re more passionate.”

“They see a world where everywhere there is injustice and inequality and they’re mad and they want to do something about it. On the centre right—and this probably reflects that these people tend to be a bit better off with the status quo—we think these policies are probably best, but hey, if we’re moving in the right direction, we’re basically happy.”

If this is the cause of Labour’s factionalism, then the consequence of it is the need for strong leadership—leadership of the kind that Helen Clark’s nine years in power is testament to.

“A successful Labour leader like Helen Clark, all she did was suppress all those factions,” Johansson says. “What we’re seeing in the politics post-Clark is that all those factions—whether it’s the rainbow wing of the Labour party, those that are more to the right of the caucus, or those that are more to the left—have been given more space to assert themselves in the absence of control.”

It was control of this kind that Goff and Shearer lacked.

“Goff was a pretty strong leader of the caucus but never in charge of the Party,” Farrar recalls. “I’ve never actually seen quite such open warfare between activists and what they see as the old guard in caucus.”

However, while this may be so, not every successful Labour leader has held the reins of control as tightly as Helen Clark. Indeed, this is because, until recent decades, such authoritative political management was not as essential as it is now. The changes that made this the case bring us to the core of the Labour story.


Of the bold statements made by the leadership candidates, notable has been Grant Robertson’s promise to a crowd of 450 at Western Springs that he would “leave behind the dog-eat-dog, free-market ideology that has governed our country for too long”.

“There will be no neoliberal agenda, no Third Way agenda, just one simple clear agenda. An economy based on putting people first.”

This so-called ‘neoliberal’ agenda refers to a radical shift in New Zealand politics that began in 1984 under the Fourth Labour Government. Prime Minister David Lange’s government, with Roger Douglas as Finance Minister, implemented a series of radical social and economic reforms, the economic side of which became known as ‘Rogernomics’. Tariffs were lifted, the economy was deregulated, and state-owned enterprises were privatised.

At the time, many saw this sudden faith in a deregulated economy as disloyalty to the core values of Labour and a betrayal of the archetypal Labour voter. The party that was supposed to represent the worker, which existed to correct the market when it failed, was all of a sudden stepping back and letting the market take over.

Prime Minister David Lange resigned. Labour MP Jim Anderton left in 1989 and formed the NewLabour Party, vowing to stay true to the “real” spirit of Labour. Roger Douglas left also, but formed ACT, which is now firmly associated with the political right.

As the extremity of Robertson’s language is testament to, this period continues to mark a sore spot in the identity of the party. Indeed, statements of the kind made by Robertson are the only references made by the candidates to the 1980s. Notice, for example, the conspicuous absence of the Labour icons of the era (think Lange, Douglas and Palmer) in the rhetoric of the candidates, despite the idolisation of earlier figures like Michael Savage and Norman Kirk.

You might be forgiven, however, upon considering the tenacity of Robertson’s language, for believing that the policies of the Fourth Labour Government were subsequently rejected by the party. This is not so.

“It was a Labour Party that established Rogernomics,” Johansson says, “and the Clark Government operated within that space. It did not disturb the major architecture of Rogernomics.”

The “Third Way ideology” that Robertson decries—a 1990s-borne approach that sought to accommodate Labour values into a free-market framework—is now not so much an option, but Labour’s modus operandi.

This is not without reason, as Sir Roger Douglas, the man responsible for Rogernomics, told Salient in 2012.

“If you wanted to summarise what we did between ’84 and ’88, it was that we removed privilege,” Douglas said. “The Labour Party at the moment would claim that it was against working people. Well, it wasn’t. Working people were, as a result of the changes, able to own a motor car when they were too expensive before.”

In other words, Rogernomics was, from Douglas’ perspective, merely a novel application of Labour values.

Robertson’s rhetoric, then, is hard to read literally, but it is rhetoric that reflects an ongoing identity crisis for Labour. While the divide between Labour and National was once roughly centred around a basic economic cleavage between the class-based ideology of Labour and the free-enterprise ideology of National, the across-the-board acceptance of the ‘neoliberal paradigm’ has meant a blurring of the lines.

Indeed, this is, as Johansson explains, “why there are many people on the left who are not happy with the modern Labour Party. They see them as indistinguishable from National in the sense that they both have fidelity to the neoliberal paradigm.”

This has, as Dr Bryce Edwards of Otago University observed in a 2009 blog post, resulted in a narrowing of the spread of opinion on what he terms “materialist” issues—that is, issues like unemployment, inequality, or health and education.

“Conflict between parties still exists,” Edwards says, “but it is not based on such sharp ideological differences.”

 As Johansson explains, “The dominant economic language in 2013 is exactly the same as it was when Rogernomics was first announced. The only new language has been the imported language of the environmental movement and the whole Kaupapa Māori, which has been the infusion of indigenous politics into our political language.”

“You absent those two and we’re just living in this endless groundhog day.”

As implied by Johansson, Labour has had to turn to new frontiers to set themselves apart. This explains the rise in recent elections of campaigns focussed on the environment, the Treaty of Waitangi, crime, immigration, and gender and sexuality politics.

These issues are less clearly identified as left or right, meaning the lines by which a Labour leader can unify the factions, and hold the balance of power between them, are all the more difficult to navigate.

The changes to the internal dynamic of the party have been significant. As Farrar explains: “Certainly as power blocs within the party, the unions have declined quite significantly. Māori, women and the rainbow sectors have become quite powerful there. You’ve seen in a pretty unfortunate way some of those tensions come out in the leadership contest, with the backlash to Grant due to his sexuality from the unions in South Auckland.”

But the consequences for Labour have not only been internal. The smudging of political identity has affected Labour’s voting base.

“20 years ago, 70 per cent of the country would be committed all their life to one party,” Farrar explains. “Now it’s well under 50 per cent. People like to shop around.”

Johansson adds, “Labour is nowhere with men. The National Party’s party vote from men is about 55 per cent. So that’s who Labour has lost: the core chunk of blue-collar workers and older people.”

In this uncertain political landscape, the Green Party have stepped into spaces previously occupied by Labour, and now poll consistently over ten per cent.

“Labour is complicated by the fact that many of Labour’s supporters are actually social conservatives,” Johansson says, “Whereas the Greens don’t have that countervailing pressure on them in that space.”

Farrar agrees. “The Greens have the luxury to not live out what they say,” he says. “Labour will say something nuanced, but the Greens can go quite pure. When you’re stuck in the middle, that can be quite tough. When the Greens are at ten to 15 per cent, they can’t be written off as the extreme like they were on five or six per cent.”


The consequence of all of this is not only the necessity of strong leadership, but a leader who can reforge Labour’s ideological identity.

As Johansson explains, “if you read the mainstream media commentary, you get the idea that someone can just look prettier than John Key on camera or be a little bit more effective against him in a debate, and somehow that’s going to cover all the stains.”

“Whenever you are going through a trough, you have to ask yourself first-principle questions. Tinkering doesn’t do it.”

Of course, while Labour may be out for now, now never lasts forever. Whether Labour gains office in 2014, or 2017, or 2021, the question is not if, but when and how. Some idea of an answer to the how should be provided by the contest for party leader. Inevitably, this decision will determine the when.

The certainty with which the leadership candidates speak about the values they embody at the hustings around the country gives the impression that these underlying questions have already been answered. Whether this is the case, only next year’s election will tell.

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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