The Cunliffe conundrum

Cunliffe and Labour are in a (dare I say it) ‘tricky’ situation, when it comes to the Greens. They are stuck in a dynamic where they are undermining their own voter base, but can’t afford to stop. I call this the ‘Cunliffe conundrum’. Yes, I know it started before him, but I’m a sucker for alliteration. The conundrum is as follows:

Labour have to frame the contest with National as ‘Labour/Green vs. National’ in order to seem like a plausible government in waiting. They can’t frame it as ‘Labour vs. National’ because Labour are getting absolutely smashed in the polls. But in doing so, they effectively signal to Labour voters that ‘a vote for the Greens is a vote for Labour’. And of course, some Labour voters oblige and vote Green. Even if Labour suddenly started acting like a capable, functioning opposition, they have to ally with the Greens to form a government.

As more Greens come to parliament, they demonstrate their capability and increasingly mainstream credentials, thus signalling to voters that they can safely vote Green. Any left-wing voter with half a brain quickly realises voting for the Greens is effectively two votes; one for a stronger Green Party, and another for a Labour-led government. This leads to a serious structural erosion of Labour’s regular voter base (but not its activist base).

The issue that NO ONE discusses openly is whether the Greens can eventually replace Labour. I think they can, but it will require a few things.

Firstly, it will require further collapse of the Labour brand. Labour are at a once-in-a-generation low-point but they have the people, the policies, and the ability to go even lower.

Secondly, the Greens need to gain a greater share of the flow of talented, ambitious, young careerists that currently stream into Labour. These kids follow a well-worn path from university politics to Labour party staffer to Labour MP (with maybe a brief stint in the public sector). This river of hacks is Labour’s lifeblood. Some of them, if they’re drunk, will admit they fit better in the Greens, but they want to be Prime Minister. If the Greens can convince the river of hacks that they can further their pursuit of power via the Greens, then the river will begin to divert. This is a tipping point situation, and will likely first require parity between the Greens and Labour.

There are a few other factors at play here, but more on that in another post.


5 thoughts on “The Cunliffe conundrum

  1. An interesting perspective, but don’t you think the stream of careerist hacks might be hurting the Labour party? Most voters aren’t impressed by someone whose main CV point is being a parliamentary staffer, and these types of people tend to have little connection with the broader electorate

    • Hi Nick,

      I think in terms of getting into government, yes they are. Even though I share most of their values, they are largely out of step with those of wider New Zealand. They certainly do not share the values or experience of workers in New Zealand, despite claiming to represent them.

  2. Labour are made up of a series of identity politics. Homophobia, Racism, sexism, etc many on the left found their identity through these struggles. However, with ‘the third way’ of politics of the late 1980s and 1990s they essentially accepted neoliberalism as an economic system. Resultant policies have been vote buying to interest groups, and appeasing capitalism through a slightly more redistributive system. There is a failure to engage by Labour on transformative politics, because they are too busy upholding the current power system. Too many Labour MP’s are appeasing key supporters behind closed doors, and then making feeble attempts at advancing their hobbyhorse policies – which always seem to have a price tag. It often seems to be about cutting bigger and bigger slices of the cake, instead of genuinely innovative policies to shape the governance structure of NZ. I would argue that the Green’s economic platform is far more coherent (and balanced).

    Labour’s old worldview is still dominated by unions (who undoubtably do have a role to play though!). There has not been an acceptance that there are natural limits to growth for our environment. Failure to engage in the ecological reality has meant they have not focused on just transition strategies with unions as a political reality.

    Labour are currently in a reactionary mode. Their politics are opportunistic, without being based in respected and understood principles. This is difficult for the voter to engage with and buy into a wholeness of vision. Labour is swinging rambling punches that are failing to connect, and if they do it is difficult to know what direction the next punch is coming from. How that would work in a post-election coalition with the Greens?

    If the Greens are not in Government in 2014, it does leave the door open to Labour spectacularly imploding and there being a Green led Government in 2017.

    • Hi Tara,

      Thanks for all the awesome feedback. Yeah, it’s interesting that they have gone third way while pursuing identity politics. There’s been a lot of good stuff written about the tradeoff between the market faction and the identity politics faction in the fourth Labour govt. A lot of people argue that there was an agreement between factions in the fourth Labour govt, where Helen Clark and her fellow social liberals agreed to support Rogernomics in exchange for support from Phil Goff and the Rogernomes on social issues. TVNZ produced a 4 part series on the period, which can be viewed at: Really worth the watch.

  3. […] more bargaining power over Labour. Further, the Greens have Labour over a barrel in what I call ‘The Cunliffe Conundrum’. Although the Greens ultimately need Labour to not be shit if they want to be in […]

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