Does Labour have leadership?
The election of a new Labour Party leader will occupy the political news headlines between now and the announcement of a result on 18 November. But already the phrase ‘Labour leadership’ sounds like an oxymoron. For instance, the opening of the new parliament lacked a confirmed leader of the Opposition thanks to Labour's new leadership election process. But, assuming that Labour will eventually get its house in order and return to being a serious contender for government (as history suggests it will), what are the challenges facing the next leader?
After David Cunliffe won the leadership in September 2013, Labour’s opinion polling went from low- to mid-30s down to the mid-20s, ending in their public humiliation with 25.1% of party votes. Given that Cunliffe is an intelligent and articulate man who performed very well in pre-election debates with Prime Minister John Key, this poor performance may seem hard to explain. But Labour was up against a Prime Minister who continues to enjoy strong support. They also suffered from uncertainty among centrist voters about the potential influence of the Greens in a Labour–Green coalition. But then the whole prospect became even more distasteful to voters once it was apparent that NZ First could have wielded greater bargaining power with Labour than the Greens. From there, with a push from Kim Dotcom, it was all downhill.
Like beauty, good political leadership is in the eye of the beholder. And voting Kiwis just didn’t like what they beheld on the Labour side of the political spectrum. Somehow, Labour has to find its way out of the ideological and electoral corner into which it has now painted itself. It will be a long hard slog to regain credible results in the opinion polls, let alone form a future government.
So far, each of the four candidates has been evaluated in terms of their past experience and sectional affiliations. But the winner of this ‘primary’ election needs to rise above his or her existing affiliations and demonstrate a breadth of vision that encompasses (not necessarily resolves) the party’s internal differences. To succeed in the long term, he or she should be able to project a similar inclusiveness to the public at large, and so start looking like a future Prime Minister.
The danger for Labour is that no single candidate may emerge strongly ahead on the first preferences. If two or three are polling initially at around the same level, that would indicate an underlying division of opinion. It can be especially damaging for the future leader if it becomes clear to all that he/she is preferred by only a minority of caucus members. The lack of support in caucus for former leader David Cunliffe, made manifest by the leadership election results, gave John Key an open goal to score points, almost daily, against his opponent.
On the positive side, Labour Party members and affiliates can take heart from the fact that they have four very competent and experienced individuals to choose from. As they are in effect choosing the leader whom they hope will go on to be the next Prime Minister, they should ask themselves which one would be best to take on Mr Key and even surpass him in popularity. They need to ask which candidate will win back the middle-of-the-road voters who either decided to stay with or defect to National or NZ First in September’s general election.
If governing the nation again is Labour’s objective, then stale ideologies and internal loyalties are not the criteria on which to choose their next leader.