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Comment: Turning Point?

Wed 6 Aug 2014 In: Comment View at NDHA

After much deliberation, I have decided to focus this column on the controversial subject of David Cunliffe's Labour leadership-although one recent opinion poll demonstrated that the election result may not be as clearcut a victory for National as others previously indicated. I want to make it clear that I am not one of those political commentators who believe that political party leadership is the only factor that determines the success or failure of political parties. While it is an important element, one needs to look further afield to accurately access its importance. For example, take the British Labour Party. Current UK Opposition Leader Ed Miliband isn't all that popular, but Labour Party policies have opened up a substantial lead relative to the somewhat traumatised and divided Conservative Party. Certainly, incumbent centre-right parties can make serious gaffes of their own- witness the debacle of Tony Abbott's premiership across the Tasman. Abbott now seems to have been the beneficiary of circumstance- the ALP Rudd/Gillard civil war combined with the sclerosis and exhaustion of several long-term ALP state governments. One gets the distinct impression that rival Malcolm Turnbull is biding his time to strike, probably after what is probably going to be a devastating loss for the single-term Napthine Coalition Victorian state government come November. Turnbull may well lead a caucus room revolt and unseat Abbott at that point, but federal Treasurer Joe Hockey has expressed his animosity to any leadership challengeor change and may not retain his portfolio after any subsequent Liberal caucus room leadership spill. The British Labour Party has a series of advantages over its New Zealand counterpart. It has clear and firm party policies and opposes a Tory minority government with unpopular austerity policies, internal Eurosceptic and social conservative dissension and inept ministerial conduct, as well as benefiting indirectly from the United Kingdom Independence Party insurgency. From the British experience, it seems to be the case that it doesn't matter if a particular party leader is lacklustre, as long as the party effectively communicates clear and coherent alternative policies, which British Labour does. Named after its current leader, the British Labour Party's policy framework is called "Milibandism." Milibandism addresses the concerns of the "squeezed middle" classes who are anxious about the possibility that their children, and possibly themselves, are inheriting substandard and retrenched public services such as education, healthcare access and housing due to the doctrinaire austerity policies of the current centre-right government(s) installed in London (Canberra and Wellington). Energy companies, tax avoidance crackdowns and loan shark regulation are particular targets of this new policy framework. The dominant theory is that Thatcherite privatisation (and by extension, its antipodean equivalents) have failed because they created monopolies and quasi-cartels in "broken markets", so the answer is more stringent regulation of the offending privatised businesses to create consumer equity and avoid escalating price inflation, productivity stagnation and disincentives for service innovation. Job creation, home building and higher wages are the hallmarks of a narrative of inclusion- "One Britain" (or One New Zealand). When the Guardian profiled Milibandism, it focused on the attributes of "Team Miliband" in this context. Education, business and housing are particular subjects of intensive scrutiny. So far, it sounds much like Chris Hipkins, Metiria Turei, David Parker and Phil Twyford in the context of New Zealand Labour and the Greens. However, where Milibandism differs from New Zealand Labour is the intellectual firepower from moderate and responsible business commentators, such as Michael Porter, Dominic Barton and Paul Polman, who are used to counter Tory rhetoric about the importance of maintaining orthdoxy in New Zealand's context. If I were Cunliffe, I would therefore take some initiative and start challenging the doctrinaire orthdoxy of Treasury and the business media in this context through citing sources that substantiate Labour's account of New Zealand society, economics and politics. As Green co-leader Russell Norman correctly noted, research, development and innovation are core to this process. There are also left policy journals aplenty and Miliband also has the advantage of an entourage of talented aides. Finally, the Guardian lists essential reading for would-be Milibandites. I would suggest that the Labour leadership, research unit and key spokespeople read and analyse this material and adapt it to New Zealand circumstances. By contrast to Miliband, child of political activists, ALP Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has a trade union background, and is former President of the Australian Workers Union. He served as the former Minister of Workplace Relations and Minister of Education in the Rudd and Gillard administrations. He was also associated with Maurice Blackburn Cashman, a legal firm which has many trade union clients on its books. He also has a strong financial background, serving previously on the management committees of the Superannuation Trust of Australia and Victorian Funds Management Corporation. He is also backed by 'left-wing' unions such as the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union. One of his benchmark policies is the National Disability Insurance Scheme, widely regarded as one of the chief innovations of the Rudd/Gillard era. Based on the above comparative analysis, I would therefore ask whether previously perceived problems were with David Cunliffe's current Labour leadership, or were they the result of poor coordination between the party leadership, research unit and media management? If the latter are also at fault, then both the Labour parliamentary and organisational parties should sit down, talk and fix it. Merely changing the leadership if there are deeper, significant organisational problems may be no substitute for resolving such outstanding potential problems. However, Cunliffe himself does need to intensively read the list of authors and others cited below and adapt New Zealand Labour tactics and strategies to reflect the themes below, where applicable. He also needs greater precision, detail and focus in order to communicate his party objectives to the media and coordinate his team to focus more intensively on portfolios like health, education and housing, where the Key administration is clearly in trouble. However, a recent Roy Morgan poll (31.07.2014) seemed to show that Labour and Green campaigns were having some effect on the current status of the election campaign. With National down to forty five percent, the Labour and Green combined voter share had risen to forty two percent, with New Zealand First on five percent. Much depends on whether Winston Peters and his entourage do manage to make it over the five percent threshold and impose additional conditions than no coalitions with the Maori or Mana/Internet coalitions. Incidentally, given its coalition with the Internet Party, how is the Mana Party a 'separatist' party? And how separatist can the Maori Party be, given that its been in coalition with National for the last two parliamentary terms? That said, the good news is that it is still just under two months until the next election. Current Labour leadership problems may be working themselves out and Cunliffe might benefit from robust and sustained debate, adverse major incumbent events for the Key administration and 'wild cards.' What role can LGBT voters and Labour Party activists play in the above process? While advocating for remaining legislative reforms such as transgender rights and anti-bullying legislative and policy development, implementation and execution, we also need to "write ourselves in" to the Labour story and recount stories about what stakeholding would mean for our communities and how contemporary policies and legislative frameworks impose barriers to that. We need specific research initiatives and focus on previously neglected areas of policy development and debate, such as education and housing policy. Recommended: Vernon Small: "Labour jumps to 30 percent in Roy Morgan survey" Stuff: 31.07.2014: Rafael Behr: "Milibandism: Is the Left Winning the Battle of Ideas?" New Statesman: 20.11.2013: "What is Milibandism?" Guardian: 01.02.2014: James Macintyre and Mehdi Hassan: Ed: Ed Miliband and the Remaking of the Labour Party: London: Biteback: 2011. Peter Hall (ed) Varieties of Capitalism: Oxford: Oxford University Press:2001. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pettet: The Spirit Level: New York: Bloomsbury:2010. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pearson: Winner-Takes-All-Politics: New York: Simon and Schuster:2010. David Sainsbury: Progressive Capitalism: London: Biteback: 2013 Michael Sandel: What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets: London: Penguin: 2013 Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Harvard: Harvard University Press: 2014. Wikipedia/Bill Shorten: Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 6th August 2014    

Credit: Politics and religion commentator Craig Young

First published: Wednesday, 6th August 2014 - 10:36am

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