WE’LL ALL HAVE TO WAIT for Sunday’s One News bulletin to discover whether or not the results of the Fairfax Ipsos and Roy Morgan polls are confirmed by Colmar Brunton. If they are then David Cunliffe will have to act swiftly and decisively if he’s to preserve what little remains of Labour’s hopes for victory.
If he fails to act, then the narratives being constructed around his leadership will harden into perceived facts that he will find increasingly difficult to escape.
What are those narratives? There are many, but for the moment these are the two most damaging.
The first asserts that while Cunliffe undoubtedly won the support of his party in 2013, he singularly failed to win the support of his caucus. That failure is forcing him to tread with exaggerated caution around his parliamentary colleagues in an attempt to maintain a facade of party unity.
The Leader of the Opposition’s and his advisers’ preoccupation with unity is now extending that caution into the realm of policy with the result that Cunliffe’s campaign promises to enshrine Labour’s core values at the heart of the party’s 2014 manifesto are beginning to ring hollow.
The second narrative is being constructed around Cunliffe himself. Essentially, it casts him as a high-functioning Walter Mitty character unsure whether his true identity is equal to the persona he was obliged to fabricate in order to win the affection and loyalty of Labour’s rank-and-file. That uncertainty is making Cunliffe’s political performances look increasingly forced and inauthentic.
This second narrative has been greatly strengthened by Cunliffe’s piecemeal redefinition of Labour’s flagship “Best Start” programme and his ham-fisted, pot-calling-the-kettle-black attack on the socially-insulating effects of the Prime Minister’s wealth.
Cunliffe’s defenders will of course argue that even the slightest perception of disunity is likely to prove fatal to Labour’s chances of winning the election, and that the radical political leader that the Leader of the Opposition longs to become can only be realised once he has been armed with the state power that flows from victory.
But if victory can only be won by caution, then Cunliffe’s government must perforce be a cautious one. New Zealand will not accept a Prime Minister who, as soon as all the votes have been safely cast and counted, cries: “Ha, ha! Fooled you!”
For the moment then, in both the Leader’s Office and the Labour Caucus, caution has the upper hand. On almost every front the policies Labour is advancing are responsible, mainstream and unlikely to frighten Capitalism’s horses. Last April’s momentary flirtation with radicalism – “New Zealand Power” – was quickly hustled out of the media spotlight and now shows every sign of being regarded as an embarrassing example of David Parker’s policy wonkiness.
Labour and Cunliffe are thus advancing into Election Year as a fragile and ill-tempered coalition of pale-pink neoliberalism, anxious social-democracy, thwarted ambition and slighted ego. But, as everyone knows, a coalition can only be as radical as its most conservative member; and remains united only for as long as the benefits of loyalty outweigh the costs of treachery.
So what is holding Cunliffe’s fragile coalition together?
Interestingly, it’s all about how to manipulate polling data.
A friend of mine has made a close study of the 2008 and 2012 American presidential elections – especially the Obama Campaign’s unparalleled ability to identify and get out the Democratic Vote. He informs me that Labour has expertise under contract that may soon be in a position to offer something similar in the New Zealand context. In a close contest, this sort of technological fix might just be enough to tip the balance in Labour’s favour.
My own reservations about this salvation-by-software approach is that its advocates all-too-often omit from their pitch the other secret of the Obama Campaign’s extraordinary success – an army of volunteers. Yes Obama had IT resources far superior to the Republicans, but the software’s uncanny ability to analyse and map the political geography of American states and cities would have been useless without the volunteers Obama’s strategists were able to pour, at a moment’s notice, into the neighbourhoods, streets, parts of streets, apartment buildings and even individual houses where they could do most good.
But, in order to assemble an army of skilled electoral volunteers it is first necessary to inspire them. Except that youth and idealism are seldom motivated by caution and responsibility – even when it is backed by state-of-the-art information technology.
And this, in a nutshell, is Cunliffe’s dilemma. To win he needs to mobilise the young, the brown and the poor who stayed home in 2011. That will require a radical manifesto and a leader willing to sell it with maximum energy and minimum equivocation. But Labour’s caucus isn’t capable of agreeing on a radical manifesto – which means that the abstainers of 2011 will remain outside the electoral process. Without them Labour will have no choice but to make its pitch to “soft” National supporters. But Cunliffe was elected to do exactly the opposite. Any attempt to sell Labour as “National Lite” will profoundly disillusion his “Old Labour” supporters and not be believed by the ex-Labour voters his colleagues are determined to turn around.
It was precisely this fear: that all those Labour supporters energised by Cunliffe’s election, apprehending the possibility of imminent betrayal, will suddenly crash Labour’s poll results, that inspired my much criticised “Canaries In A Coalmine” posting on The Daily Blog.
If the news from Colmar-Brunton on Sunday is as bad as, or worse than, the news already received from Fairfax-Ipsos and Roy Morgan, Cunliffe has only one winning strategy. He must go over the heads of his caucus colleagues and appeal to that latent Labour constituency that has waited so long for political representation that offers some prospect of genuine economic and social progress. And if his caucus rebels, then he must demand that his party selects him a new one.