People will know I have preferences ahead of David Cunliffe. People should also note I would put Robertson dead last (out of all the plausible contenders) in the bid for the Labour leadership.
That is not to say I don’t believe Grant Robertson would make an exceptional leader of the Labour Party and/or New Zealand. Wellington locals know very well that Grant is an exceptional advocate for our community. There isn’t an event in this city not occasionally attended by our very strong member of parliament. He has a very high profile here and is well liked here by people of all political persuasions.
But this is part of the problem.
Living in Wellington gives you a false hope that the Left could cruise to victory at any election and that New Zealanders would happily elect a gay Prime Minister to lead a Labour-Green government. This is the perception that ‘Everything’s sunny in Wellington’. I believe Grant believes he can be elected Prime Minister, for the fact most people he talks to in Wellington love him. That’s the causality. If Grant talked to New Zealanders outside of the major centres where Labour’s vote has declined since the defeat of Helen Clark, he’d get a different reception.
He’d get a reception that told him Labour is no longer a working man’s party, but a feminist lobby group. The Greens, he’d find, are still viewed by many as rapscallion hippies set out to destroying the economy. He’d even find some people take issue to Russel Norman’s nationality.
These perceptions are annoying. But even more so, they are held by many New Zealanders mostly outside of our major centres. Poor communities in Taranaki and the Waikato are now receiving ballot booths with more than 90% support for the National Party, and in some cases Labour trails the ‘Ban 1080 Party’.
It is the small, rural traditionalist communities Labour must regain. There was a time when Labour held seats like Rotorua, East Coast, Tukituki, Wairarapa, Whanganui, New Plymouth. Waimakariri, Waitaki, Invercargill and Aoraki. New Plymouth, as one example, in the early 2000s returned 70% support for Labour. Compare that to now, just fourteen years later, where there is more than 60% support for the current National MP, Jonathan Young.
Labour must look at what they were doing right under the leadership of Helen Clark. There have been many, many missed opportunities by Labour to regain the rural and more conservative votes they have lost since then. They fell behind New Zealand First and the Conservatives in taking advantage of the foreign land sales issue. An issue where National should have lost serious ground. But the proposed ‘man ban’ and the “I’m sorry for being a man” gaffe really got in the way of that. Those are things that have stuck, and will become stickier for Robertson. Labour could have capitalised on this vote further with the flag debate and the trans pacific partnership agreement.
In reality, what needs to happen is a change in tactic by the opposition parties. Labour, as the Centre-left alternative to National, needs to cast its net our further to re-capture the centrist, swing-voting public have stuck to John Key like glue. Cunliffe’s image needs to change, from someone people see as occasionally making a daft comment and for the remainder of the time looking like a grumpy old man. Instead, New Zealanders need to see a smiling, up-beat David Cunliffe not afraid to have a laugh at himself – someone who they would like to have a beer with in a country tavern. John Key, whilst obviously a fake, has succeeded immensely in this area where Bill English, Don Brash, and Jenny Shipley couldn’t.
Secondly, Labour most not get distracted by issues like Dirty Politics and mass surveillance. It did as much harm to them as it did to National. Whilst National is pained by these issues, Labour needs to start investing in street-level politics. Seeing what really concerns New Zealanders. Stuff like power prices and being able to get a job or a home. There’s another thing that doesn’t concern New Zealanders – and that’s trucks in motorways. Daft move. If National continually has to deal with ministerial fallouts, and Labour continues to talk real issues that matter to real people, the public will start to a see a contrast between the two parties. And I’ll bet which party they’d pick or the two in that scenario.
Thirdly, Labour needs to think about what votes it has lost. Robertson must understand Labour and the Greens aren’t losing inner-city liberals who he represents. Here’s the method; Labour goes after the swing-voters, the Greens stick with those solidly on the left and concerned about climate change issues, and New Zealand First (if willing) focuses heavily on the more conservative National voters who might swing away.
B. Morgan, 2014.