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Chris Ford: Labour Party And Phil Goff In Peril

Contributor:
Chris Ford
Chris Ford

One of the biggest opinion polls in New Zealand, the TV One-Colmar Brunton poll has just delivered another savage blow to Labour and its leader Phil Goff.

After nearly nine months in opposition, I would have thought they would have made some head way as there have been a number of issues that they could have exploited for all it was worth - the recession, the Richard Worth affair, cuts to public services, the list goes on.

But no, Labour stuffs up every time as was shown by its 31% rating compared to National's whopping 51% in the all crucial party vote stakes. As I have said in earlier blogs they have been all over the political highway this year driving a vehicle that appears to be about to crash into a lamp post because of two factors - firstly, their lack of direction and secondly, their leadership.

While it is true that it takes time for oppositions to make an impact after a huge defeat at the polls, one has only to go back into recent history to think of New Zealand opposition parties that have performed better at this stage in the game. In 1991, for example, the combined support for Labour, Green and NewLabour saw National virtually gazumphed in the polls only months after their 1990 landslide victory. In 1976, Labour under Bill Rowling began to recover from their searing defeat at the hands of Rob Muldoon's National Party due to the then new PM and finance minister's continued mishandling of the economy and foreign policy (especially in the wake of the African boycott of that year's Olympic Games in response to Muldoon permitting the All Black tour to South Africa that year to go ahead). As recently as 2000 even, the then Labour-Alliance Government was taken aback by the collapse in popular support due to the 'Great Capital Strike' by employers (who baulked at the then government's industrial relations legislation) who induced (in response) an economic slowdown that saw National rise in the polls again only seven months after their defeat.

In the first of these two examples, history shows that the opposition party came very close to regaining office at the following election with Labour outpolling National at least in terms of the popular vote in 1978 (but National still won in the seats that mattered under the old FPP system) while National gained only a single seat overall majority at the 1993 election as the popular vote swung leftwards towards Labour, the Alliance and New Zealand First.

But this scenario is not repeating this time around. Why?

As I pointed out above, Labour is directionless and when it seems to come up with a policy idea, like extending the dole to those who are made redundant in cases where the other partner continues to work, the communication of the policy has been botched. The party is too afraid as well to talk about the need to increase taxes on the wealthy and end tax breaks for the elite so as to increase revenue to fund decent social services and reduce income inequality. There is now a perception that talking about raising taxes in a time of recession is just inviting political suicide for any party that suggests it. I would argue not necessarily so as US President Barack Obama is raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans who benefitted from the last decade of George W. Bush inspired tax cuts. This idea has merely gained traction in this country through the Business Roundtable directed campaign that began while Don Brash was National leader to subliminally influence public opinion towards the view that New Zealand was an overtaxed country when, in international terms, it really isn't.

Therefore, Labour is too timid because it fears the wrath of the New Right. Besides, and this leads onto the second factor, Phil Goff was a champion of laissez faire economics and deregulation while he was a senior minister in the Fourth Labour Government of the 1980s. I have been listening to Parliament recently and I have to admit to having a good laugh when National have used some of Goff's past quotes extolling the virtues of the market against him. While having only listened to these exchanges on radio, I haven't seen the TV or internet images of them but, no doubt, Goff will be seen to be vigorously interjecting in order to hide his embarrassment.

And Labour Party activists and MPs really need to ask themselves these questions. Does the party really want to be led into the next election by a man who was once invited by none other than the Act Party to be its leader? Does it really want National to come out all guns blazing at the next election with attack ads showing Goff addressing angry crowds of unemployed workers on old TV news archive film? Do they really want to be led by someone who presided over one of the largest increases in unemployment ever experienced since the Great Depression?

Perhaps the answer should be no but it appears that there are very few, if any, credible challengers to Goff at this stage. It will take time for those who gained cabinet ranking only in the 2005-2008 term to come through in terms of leadership potential with the most mentioned possibilities David Cunliffe (finance spokesperson), Shane Jones and Maryan Street needing to show more mettle and experience to be either leader or deputy. Another frequently touted name, Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) boss Andrew Little will not enter Parliament until the next election but if Labour is desperate to put a fresh face at the helm then the caucas could do a Bob Hawke-style quick elevation to the leadership with Little if Labour loses the next election.

And loose the next election they might. While being mindful of the old Harold Wilson saying that 'a week is a long time in politics' and that things could still go wrong making National a one-term government, it looks at this stage, as I have said in past blogs on this issue, that the next election will be really National's to loose. Recent experience in most of the major Western democracies (Australia, Canada and Britain) shows that a strongly polling government is more likely to win a second term and therefore, saliently, Labour might be in for what happened to National in 2002 as well in that its vote might have to disastrously collapse before it is brought back to some semblance of electoral reality. For National, that reality was having to reconnect with its traditional support base as it did under Don Brash with its lurch towards the right on economic, social, defence and foreign policy issues. Perhaps Labour might have to do the same to save itself from a 2002 style defeat and it needs to do so right now as there are parties waiting in the wings (the Alliance and the Greens) who would just love to feast on the rotting Labour carcass.

This might be its ultimate fate unless it moves more to its left flank and ditches Phil Goff. Otherwise, it remains in peril of the vultures who encircle it from both the left and the right.

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