We only need to look across the Tasman to see what David Cunliffe should do now. 

John McTernan’s ‘Five Things the Australian Labor Party Needs To Do Now’ and Julia Gillard’s piece on ‘Power, Purpose and Labor’s Future’ should be compulsory reading.

Here are a few thoughts for the To Do list:

  1. First job - Change the culture of the party.

Julia Gillard wrote, “Ultimately organisations tell you what they are all about and what they value, by what they reward.”

First job - change the culture of the party. 

The ability to play palace politics isn’t evidence someone will be a good local representative and a vote-getter.  Internally, the party has to reward courage, actions and conduct that show Labour people can represent their communities. Not self-interest. Helen Clark understood this. Different strands on the left were all represented in her cabinet. It takes a symphony to make an orchestra.

The factions have never been ideological. They’ve been personal.  You can hardly call it a meaningful fight between left and right when the litmus tests seem to be: more funding for the symphony orchestra is left wing while more funding for roads is right wing. 

Celebrate the many sectors in the Labour party from Rainbow to union. But don’t make success in the party dependent on someones ability to get the patronage of one of these sectors. 

2. Unity has to be earned. 

Be a big tent. Don’t silence dissent - embrace it. 

If a leadership campaign was a positive attention-getting experience, imagine how relevant and empowered open policy discussions could be. May the best idea win. 

If we are open about policy contests from the beginning, then leaks and perceptions of division are displaced.

Labour desperately needs champions for new ideas and fresh thinking. MPs should be floating plenty over the next six months. Don’t banish people with ideas that make party members uncomfortable. Look at who is coming up with ideas that attract broad public support.

If voters see a broad range of policy ideas supported within the party, Labour will look less opportunistic and defensive.  It’s easy to float ideas that everyone inside the party can agree with. It’s hard to champion ideas that get voters to pay fresh attention. 

3. Don’t get wedged on issues that don’t deliver on core principles. 

Labour has dominated our national consensus. We introduced free hospital care, free education for school kids, the 40 hour week, the welfare system. We built the roads, the power companies and the mines. We made it our job to create jobs. If people didn’t vote for us in 2011 it’s not because they didn’t share our values. It’s because they lost faith in our ability to deliver on them. 

Labour needs to beware of making every issue a ‘litmus’ issue. If a position is unpopular, some hard questions need to be asked whether it really implements a core principle, or whether the party is adopting a position simply because it is supported by entrenched interests. 

There will never be an easier time than now for David Cunliffe to jettison unpopular positions and float new ones.

4. Be prepared to listen to people outside the party

That doesn’t mean compromising core principles and chucking out unpopular policies just to get elected. It means finding out why people didn’t trust us to deliver on our values. 

Reach out beyond the party. Listen. Be clear about the purpose of the Labour party. What will a Labour government mean? How will it affect my family?

Julia Gillard is inspiring on this point: Labour can’t just take down the government. Sooner or later voters will ask what Labour’s purpose is. 

The last twenty months of infighting, we have sent a message to New Zealanders that our purpose is shallow, superficial and self-serving. ‘Who will keep their job? Who will be on the front bench and who won’t?’ The public don’t care about that. 

5. Don’t just say how you’ll pay for your promises, explain to people why you made them. 

I’m worried about the campaign that the Government and media will run against some of the big-spending hints made during the leadership contest. For example, David Cunliffe was repeatedly trapped into supporting tax increases without being able to say who would pay the extra tax or why they were needed. 

He is right to say we need extra revenue to pay for better services - but he must move quickly to tell a story illustrating not only what Labour will do, but why. He must be specific about who will pay more, and how much - or his position will be distorted. And he must be compelling about why the money is needed or the idea will have only detractors and too few supporters.

Labour has always been the party of progress. We have a divine discontent that makes us want to shape a better future. National defends the status quo. It has never made governments of transformation.

David Cunliffe has to state over and over how he will shape the future and help people get ahead  and why. And he should be prepared to drop promises that get in the way of the core mission. 

He must be clear about why Labour has been struggling, and about what will change so the party deserves reconsideration from Labour’s ‘lost tribe’.


Comments (3)

by stuart munro on September 16, 2013
stuart munro

Gillard doesn't do it for me I'm afraid - and NZ has gone one better than her already by finding a process solution for leadership ambitions - more than she managed. The recent contest was broadly positive for the party and sets a healthy and democratic precedent. This lesson was probably learned in part from the Greens.

Cunliffe basically gets it. Maybe you should give him a day or two, because he's given the matter some thought, and it seems that he likes to win. You might like winning too.


by stuart munro on September 16, 2013
stuart munro

This is better than anything I ever heard from the Australian Labour party.

by Andrew Osborn on September 30, 2013
Andrew Osborn

Cheering stuff Josie but it doesn't go anywhere far enough.

I see many parallels to the 'wilderness years' of Labour in the UK during the Thatcher era. Michael Foot and Tony Ben were left behind - Duffel coated dinosaurs trying to solve yesterdays problems. Until Blair came along and adopted much of what Thatcher had done, Labour was largely irrelevant.

Labour faces a similar dilemma in NZ today.

Union membership is now only about 9% of the working population and that mostly consists of middle class salaried staff  - teachers mainly. The true, blue-collar 'working class' today are, on average, in a business with fewer than 7 employees and are likely owners, co-owners or aspiring to own a small business. They would laugh if you suggested they join a union.

So far Cunliffe has cosied up to the unions and implied a move toward radical left-wing policies which should have been left behind in the '60's. He won't win votes amongst the general popualtion with this sort of talk. He has to face up to the fact that 'best practice' for running a country is pretty close to where John Key now sits.

So...he needs to do what Blair did if he wishes to become PM: Give his colleagues a good slapping, drag them into the 21st century and develop a competetive economic platform.

Personal attacks on Key are the worst possible approach, especially when Key is clearly doing sensible things in most cases. Key isn't the problem - Labour's lack of viable policy is the problem.

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