Opinion: Shearer's stand a Labour-saving device?

Friday 23 November 2012, 2:23PM
By Massey University

Far from undermining David Shearer’s leadership of the Labour Party, recent events have strengthened his position and public profile as leader with unanimous support from his caucus.

The leadership "crisis" shows how reporters can sometimes be guilty of creating news. At the Labour Party conference, cameras were trained on leadership rival David Cunliffe, who appeared to enjoy the media attention. He then left questions about his loyalty open to speculation. Now he has paid the price.

New party rules mean if the caucus triggers a leadership ballot in February then all party members, caucus members and affiliated unions would participate in a preferential vote. Many reporters and bloggers believe the wider membership is against Shearer, but one just had to witness the rapturous reception from hundreds of rank-and-file members at the party conference in Auckland to realise that the opposite is probably the case.

So why would any contender wish now to trigger a contest for the leadership knowing that they would probably lose? Predictions in politics are always hazardous but, by February, we may well have forgotten that a leadership "crisis" ever happened.

Ruling out surprise upsets, then, we should look at the content of Shearer’s conference speech, as it gives some clear messages about the future direction of Labour, and some hints about the possibilities for centre-left red–green collaboration.

The key announcement in Shearer’s speech was an affordable housing policy, to be funded by government bonds. But Shearer also indicated a more positive approach to research and development, and a policy to give the Reserve Bank the tools to address our high exchange rate, matters of concern to business. He reiterated Labour’s commitment to a capital-gains tax.

For social policy, Shearer dug deeply into Labour tradition and drew on his personal values. He made a commitment to eradicate poverty – with special concern for child poverty. And he gave a strong critique of the present government’s education policies. Overall, the speech portrayed Labour as taking a more ‘hands-on’ approach to government than National. This differentiates his political direction from Key’s, and places Labour firmly within its traditional centre-left ground.

If Shearer is to become a genuine contender to be the next Prime Minister, however, Labour will need to demonstrate that it can collaborate with one or more other parties in order to gain office. The obvious partner is the Green Party. Current opinion polls put the Labour–Green combination neck-and-neck with National.

We have learned from past election campaigns, however, that political parties have to tread carefully in raising expectations about post-election options for forming a government.

Voters who want their favoured party to gain office need some confidence before the election that their party could form a workable multi-party governing arrangement after the election. But some who may have been leaning towards your party may not like the proposed partnership, and you might then lose their vote. Or, they may vote for your potential coalition partner instead, believing that it won’t jeopardise your chances of gaining office.

Under MMP, political parties have become more sophisticated at managing this tricky pre-electoral positioning. But, after unfortunate incidents such as National and ACT’s ‘tea-party’ last year, voters may be wary of pre-electoral tactics that look too manipulative. And so mistakes could prove to be expensive.

So, for instance, before the 2014 election, Labour and the Greens need to show they can work together, even as they are competing for the same centre-left voters. They will need to stake out distinctive ideological and policy territory, and yet they will also need to show they have enough in common to form a stable government. They have to differ from, and yet be agreeable to, one another.

Labour and the Greens will not necessarily need to make a formal pre-electoral pact in order to be credible to voters as a potential coalition. Pre-electoral positioning under MMP has tended to see parties making informal announcements about whom they are willing, or not willing, to work with in office. Formal, detailed pre-electoral agreements about ministerial portfolios and policy have not become the norm.

Things are more complex if one or two other parties in the centre hold the balance of power. In 2005, NZ First refused to support a Labour-led government if it included the Greens as a partner. If he gets the chance, would Winston Peters repeat that ultimatum? Or, if the Maori Party make it through again, would they have a part to play?

Nevertheless, Labour and the Greens have distinctive and yet compatible policy agendas that could result in a workable compromise in office. But Labour MPs need now to get behind their leader so that a red–green coalition can present a viable alternative in 2014.

Associate Professor Grant Duncan is a public policy lecturer at the Albany campus. He is presenting a paper he co-authored with Dr Grant Gillon – ‘Pre-electoral Positioning and Multi-party agreements under MMP: Who Will Work with whom?’ – at the New Zealand Political Studies Association conference in Wellington next week.