After the rout of Labour at the 2014 election by National I was pretty depressed at the state of centre left politics in New Zealand. Whilst few expected Labour to win the election of 2011, people did have realistic expectations that the process of finding a new leader to replace Helen Clark would be well underway. Member of Parliament for Mt Roskill, Phil Goff had lead since Ms Clark resigned on election night, and he had done a commendable job against a Prime Minister who was then – and still is now – one of the more popular Prime Ministers to run New Zealand. But Mr Goff was unlikely to ever unseat Prime Minister John Key. It would have to take another leader to do that, so it was essential for Labour to start looking.
Perhaps Labour was looking, but one would not have known it from the turbulence that saw David Shearer go missing in action, quite unable to land any meaningful hits on the Prime Minister or his Cabinet, despite several Ministerial snafu’s. People could only watch and gnash their teeth with frustration as Minister of Education Hekia Parata survived the Christchurch schools fumble that saw her saying up to 19 schools could close; as an array of privacy breaches from Ministry’s and Departments alike failed to gain traction in the media; as the attitude of Ministers to the democratic rights of New Zealanders went from reserved to outright contempt.
So, when David Shearer abruptly quit in late August 2013, there was guarded optimism that Labour might be ready to turn the corner for the better. His successor David Cunliffe, aware that he was running out of time, but unable to quite ensure that his Caucus was behind him, faced a difficult task – how to make Labour look like the mainstream left of centre party, without giving John Key and the National Party reason to think he was abandoning his claim to the centre. The failure of Labour to make its mind up on an array of issues, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, what its social priorities would be and how fund everything it wanted to do, would prove to be its undoing. The failure of its Caucus to unite under a leader and perform to the best of their ability, showed a Labour Party stilled scared of National, still scared of itself.
It is perhaps not surprising that I hold little hope as long as Labour stays on its current trajectory. When Andrew Little, a trade unionist, was elected leader after its worst night ever at the 2014 election, the temporary relief at Labour having a new leader was followed by nagging doubts. Initial progress seemed to be steady without being spectacular. Now those doubts are growing. With 12 months gone in the third term of Prime Minister John Key, the National Party looks as solid as ever. Even if an election were held today it would still get 57 seats. With A.C.T., United Future and possibly the Maori Party, that would be sufficient to form another Government.
The only thing working in the favour of Labour at the moment is that, historically, peace time Governments do not last more than three terms in office. Given that this rule, along with National having found a leader that is popular with New Zealanders, saw Labour outed in 2008, that is hardly encouraging.