What Labour needs to hear: the 4th voice

Who will determine Labour's future – the MPs, the members, the unions? The fact is that after a 24 percent election result they are the wrong people to listen to and the truth may be every hard to hear

As he pops back and forth between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, Shane Jones must look on himself as the luckiest of the three men who took part in the Labour leadership race just a scant 12 months ago. While the other two men glove-up for what will be a much more bruising battle, Jones' only problem must be his luggage weight, given the huge bag full of 'I told you so' he must be carting around with him.

Last year he praised the new fangled primary process as making Labour relevant again – and it was for a while, with its poll ratings in the mid-30s. But at the same time he warned the party it had to hold the centre ground if it wanted to stay relevant.

Instead, the party backed David Cunliffe who spoke of a red, not a pale blue party and there was hope for a few weeks amongst the faithful that Labour could win from the left. But if that hope was ever more than an illusion, it was lost when Cunliffe went to sleep over the summer and indulged in a series of well-publicised gaffes before the campaign had even begun.

In the end, he lost. And he lost very badly indeed, the worst Labour poll since 1922.

You can point to the early mistakes around the primary trust, baby bonus and "leafy suburbs" comment. You can point to the later mana cupla and capital gains tax blank. You can point to his lack of authenticity and political instincts that too often are tone deaf.

But that result was not all down to Cunliffe. As he has fairly pointed out, voters could see the lack of support amongst some in his own caucus (some if them not trying very hard to conceal it). As Cunliffe says, a year is not long enough to have put his stamp on the party and the public mind. Yes, he ran a good campaign. Yes Dotcom and Dirty Politics undermined his slim chances and yes he's one of the few Labour MPs with a big and coherent vision.

It must be soul destroying to have scrapped and fought and worked for this job and then be told he has to give up on his life-long dream of being Prime Minister one day.

But you know what? Tough. Politics ain't fair or kind. His moment, brutally short as it was, has passed.

Maybe he can win over the party members needed to win back the job. Maybe the unions can still be rallied by his rhetoric. Maybe he could, somehow, win back the support of enough caucus members to steady the ship. He may be right that he can reclaim the job he resigned this week, but it's hard to come to any other conclusion that he is still utterly in the wrong.

Because he's not listening to the fourth and most important voice; the voice of voters.

If he can look at that result and still believe that he can win the next election, he is only proving he's truly as tone deaf as his critics say. As Robertson knows, it all comes down to three words: "twenty-four percent".

That's the voice of rejection, clear and simple. 24 percent.

Sure, sometimes that can be turned around. But not this time. Why? Because of the caucus. Cunliffe's series of ill-judged decisions since election night mean that anyone with even half an ear on the news knows that the majority of his caucus do not want him back. His own deputy has now said his return is untenable.

(By the way, where did the Norm Kirk comparison come from? Yes Kirk lost in 1966 and stayed on, but he also lost in 1969. Was Cunliffe admitting he's a six year project?)

However unfair on him, it was opposition from within his own team that undermined his introduction to the public in the first place. Voters don't trust a divided team to lead the country. They just aren't going to back someone who doesn't have the backing of his closest colleagues.

And if they weren't sure before, what's utterly clear to voters now is that last year's lack of support – however well patched over in the past 12 months – remains. If anything, it's worse.

So even if Cunliffe can again win the leadership and even if again his caucus vows to back him 100 percent, everyone will know his is a divided team. Whatever display of unity might be conjured up, it will be impossible to believe. Voters will look at Labour and see a lie. There is no way Labour will be able to earn the people's trust and look like a government-in-waiting.

It would be over before it began.

To avoid living that lie, Cunliffe would have to try to purge the caucus of his opponents with a series of by-elections and de-selections for 2017. Yet the division that would cause would not only doom Labour for 2017, but may tear the party apart.

So what to do instead? Labour's problems stem back to the lack of renewal under Clark and then Goff (who did much right in his brief tenure, but who tidied up the policy without being able or willing to tidy up the personnel).

Labour's go-to alternative, Grant Robertson, is a likeable and able politician with sod-all name recognition, no significant policy or public notches on his political belt, and the lead weight of being a left-wing career politician.

Or perhaps there's David Shearer, who was meant to be the perfect centrist candidate, but who in his time as leader struggled with detail, grit and clear communication.

Don't get me wrong, these are all good, capable men. But the non-political folk I've talked to since the election give a more brutal assessment. They see the tone-deaf one, the one they've never seen before and the one who can't talk. Like the three monkeys, it's hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

But such is Labour's choice. Unless, of course, those three monkeys tear each other apart and in desperation the party turns the wise old owl, David Parker.

(Those non-political folk I've heard talk all raise Jacinda Ardern, and she has a likeability factor unparalleled in the current caucus. But I'm not sure New Zealand is ready for a 30-something Prime Minister).

Any which way, it's a long way from the 40-odd percent days of Helen Clark. And it's hard to imagine how any of those candidates could win the centre-ground in sufficient numbers to return to the 40s.

Of course it might not need to; if the Greens stay strong a mid-30s Labour party could be sufficient to change the government. But can any of them do it in three years?

One of the tough choices Labour has to make is whether it see its rebuild as a three year or six year project. That decision suggests different strategies, possibly different leaders. Another is if it's serious about remaining a "broad church" party. Because currently it simply isn't. Use the phrase as much as you like, it's just not. Another is what to do about the Greens... And on and on.

Labour could choose to become a 20 percent party for the poorest New Zealanders, Maori and perhaps those committed to what is perjoratively called "identity politics". That's a genuine option that would allow New Zealand First or some other party come through as a genuinely centrist party in a three-way coalition.

But I doubt that's what most Labour members want in their heart of hearts. But does it have the willingness to listen and reform, does it have the depth of talent to reconnect with former Labour voters and does it have the political strength to fight and hold the centre?

Look at the previous generation of Labour MPs – dominated by the Princes St branch – and you see politicians who saw the big picture, devoured politics for breakfast and knew how to scrap. Is that still there in the current MPs?

Perhaps the shadow of that 24 percent and the unattractive snarkiness coming from Labour this weak is causing me to paint too bleak a picture. All kinds of obituaries were written for National after Bill English's 22 percent in 2002 and it came back better and stronger – after six more years. But you'd have to be blind not to see the real risk, especially after Cunliffe's move this week, that Labour could go the other way and do itself serious, even permanent, damage.

If you were to place a bet, the most likely outcome is that Robertson wins after a bruising contest. He will either be battle-hardened or damaged goods, but the logic of 24 percent suggests he will be leader. And while my earlier 'see no evil' monkey comparison may have been unkind, there is an upside for him in that.

The advantage of being little-known is that he has the chance in the next few weeks to define himself politically in people's minds and set the impression that lasts. The easy tag attached to him is "the gay trendy lefty", as one person described him to me today. But he's potentially much more than that and it's up to him to ensure that by Christmas New Zealanders think of a different list of descriptors when they hear his name. Then, perhaps, three years of straight-talking and unity might give people pause for thought.

However that only works for Labour if the organisation is overhauled... and the policy mix is right... and some old wood is culled and new talent sought and convinced the cause is viable... and mistakes are minimised... and the government hits some rocks.

There are just so many ifs and maybes. Really, the only thing certain for Labour right now is 24 percent. And until that sinks in, the rest is stuff and nonsense.