I’m loathe to add too much to the focus on personalities surrounding the current ructions in the Labour Party. It is mostly self inflicted with a dose of predictable (and contemptible) media hyperbole and desire for a good headline. Click-bait I think it’s called. What the leadership debate does do is focus attention on modern Labour’s distinct core values or rather lack of them. Since 1984 Labour and National have been essentially following the same ideological path, neoliberalism, with only minor disagreements on which fiddle and tweaks to implement to ameliorate its effects.
Both parties long ago gave up on full employment, tax reform or monetary reform. A measure of this is how business is entirely comfortable with either Parker or English as Finance Minister. They are both seen as orthodox, stable and dependable. Both are still advocating economic policies based around credit fueled housing consumption, despite the GFC. It’s business as usual. There is no Plan B.
That said, Cunliffe should go. Despite out debating Key and being generally more eloquent and intelligent, the public just do not like him. It might be his face, his haircut, his voice, his body language….any number of things no one can put their finger on. In comparison to Key, people just don’t warm to him and there is nothing he can do. Nothing. Phil Goff had the same issue.
Laila Harre had a great description of Key as political anesthetic. And he is the equivalent of Hipnovel. But Kiwis love that. He has no sharp edges. Or to use another analogy, silky smooth, unpretentious, Sanitarium peanut butter, not that wannabe, organic, almond stuff.
Shearer came closer to Key than Cunliffe in being blandly inoffensive, the kind of guy you’d have to your BBQ and not piss off the rest of the guests for no discernible reason. But Shearer was so bland and such a poor off the cuff communicator that Labour felt he posed little threat to Key in Parliament or the media. Doesn’t that remain the case despite his “nice guy” vote appeal? Or would his better smile and personal story have maintained or built on Labour’s appeal. Is that what politics has come down to?
Likewise Parker. Well spoken and intelligent, he may be too “intellectual” for your average Kiwi punter. Better speaker than Shearer to be sure but the man doesn’t appear to have an “alternative” bone in his body. He oozes establishment orthodoxy. His debates with English were reasoned and respectful but the minutiae of economic policy would have gone over most people’s heads, especially given their differences aren’t very large. And he has just indicated he is not interested in the leadership.
Grant Robertson? We might be liberal on same sex marriage but too many Kiwis aren’t ready for a gay Prime Minister. Given the misogyny Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley faced, we were barely ready for a female one.
As to any other contenders, they all face the same problem. The popularity of Key and the similarity of the modern centrist Labour Party to the modern centrist National Party. National, based on poll information, unashamedly grab any policy Labour can scrape up that looks like it might be popular.
Key used the communism word with reference to Working for Families early in his parliamentary career but adopted it wholesale before the 2008 election.
Ditto interest free student loans.
And in the 2014 campaign adopted Labour’s free doctor visits to the under twelves.
As already described, Labour and National are virtually one on monetary policy, trade policy and liberal social issues like homosexuality, alcohol and drugs. Labour has been co-opted by National and reactionary public opinion into its own beneficiary bashing in the last few years, and union bashing before that. There are a host of old Rogernomes lingering on like zombies.
When there is so little differentiation in general policy direction it does come down to personalities and style and National and Key’s swag is in, and Labour’s for the forseeable future is out.
So the calls for leadership change without substantial rejection of the economic path both parties have been engaged on for the last 30 years seems futile. With Key still there, any contest for the centre voter will be extremely difficult, third term or not. What is the point of change?
It also calls into question the whole modus operandi of centrist parties. They seem to be reactionary, trying to entice a tiny group of undecideds with fiddle and tweak policies they perceive to be popular. The whole contest of sharply delineated ideas based on ideological belief and backed with passion is long gone in favour of poll driven pragmatism. Bland leaders, bland policies. They shadow each other like America’s Cup teams with close cover strategies, working the small percentages, looking for the small wind shifts. Bold is out. Too risky.
If Labour want to keep following National down this vacuous, cynical “realpolitik” route relying on a small group becoming just disenchanted enough to switch votes to National Lite; or for Key to retire or hit a rough enough patch that a new Labour leader looks relatively attractive, then that is a game being played for personal career reasons, for power, not out of any genuine belief in what is good for the country. Clark and Cullen excelled at this game. Their government was bland too, neoliberal mainstream, and their anger and sharp wit should not be mistaken for political conviction.
I know it is popular in the MSM to mock the smaller parties for their more entrenched ideals, their perceived naivety, but they usually believe in the things they are promoting. You don’t really get that sense with either Labour or National. Cunliffe hinted at some passion during one debate but people are so jaded they didn’t buy it and he was mocked by sections of the media.
The worm will turn but it won’t be because of who the Labour leader is or what insipid, “sensible” and very orthodox policies they are offering. It will be because National runs out of luck with the relative strength of our economy and the economic cycle turns once more into recession, if not another global financial crisis. It would be nice to think Labour would have a Plan B for this, non orthodox ideas presented with the conviction of a Savage or Kirk. A return to that type of Labour Party seems a very, very long way off.