Is Labour finally about to step up a gear?

For seven long and at times bitter years, Labour has struggled against the might of a National-led Government with one of the most popular Prime Ministers to ever hold office in New Zealand. For all his failings – and there have been many – Prime Minister John Key remains in office approaching the midway mark of his third term in large part because the Labour-led Opposition has failed to take advantage of the numerous bungles by various Ministers. It has failed to work as a cohesive unit and it has committed silly mistakes that turned off voters in one part of the political spectrum or another at various times.

Phil Goff took over a Labour Party still in shock at its 2008 defeat, and unable to comprehend that Helen Clark was no longer leader. He inherited a mixture of experienced Members of Parliament such as Annette King and Trevor Mallard, as well as rookies with potential such as Jacinda Ardern. A combination of the public generally tending to give Governments the first term to show their agenda and prove themselves and some spectacular opportunities to show leadership in the face of a crisis (or two), helped to ensure National would get a second term with a strong finish in 2011.

One would have expected a significant improvement from Labour over 2011-2014, but it never came. David Shearer came and went with no real progress. David Cunliffe might have done better, except for his gaffe where he said he was ashamed to be a man when addressing womens rights issues. Although as the political term progressed numerous opportunities to score potentially damaging hits were offered up, Labour M.P.’s seemed to be more interested in quarrelling amongst themselves.

But to me it was Cunliffe’s gaffe that shot his credibility. This was something that turned off a lot of voters and it was only because New Zealand First picked up three seats and the Greens held their ground that National was denied a majority. Even before the voters went to bed on election night, the knives were already been sharpened for Cunliffe’s head. The centre-left held their heads in their hands. The prospect of a four term National Government was seized on with glee by National and A.C.T. as well as media outlets with a conservative outlook. Things were not looking any better when Labour announced it had a new leader in November 2014.

But in the last year since Andrew Little took over, perhaps finally realizing Labour faced becoming irrelevant to the New Zealand political scene, its discipline has improved across the board. Although like any party it still has its in house arguments, that is largely what they have been: in house. With a media establishment that has been largely sympathetic to National, instead of showing impartiality or trying to present things objectively, perhaps it is not surprising that Mr Little’s poll ratings have been relatively low.

Today, Mr Little will unveil a significantly revised shadow cabinet. This is something I have been waiting to see happen for sometime. Past revisions were a slightly more serious take on the rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. There have been some seriously good performances by a few Labour Members of Parliament that need to be rewarded, such as Kelvin Davis’ work chasing the Government over Serco. Another is Jacinda Ardern, whose profile continues to grow and her constant nipping at the Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley’s heels is finally being noticed. A third is Andrew Little himself, as he plays a game of cat and mouse with the Prime Minister over his comments about rape.

Labour still have some significant work to do. It has not had a Don Brash type moment where an extraordinarily effective speech on race relations saw National’s polling in early 2004 surge to the point that some suggested it might have won an election at the time. Whether it needs such an event to happen is a matter of academic debate that perhaps could be answered by a significant policy announcement. So far Labour has been very timid about policy announcements. It is also true that if Labour can take full advantage of the next big National failing, something that is likely to become more frequent and problematic for National if it follows the trajectory of a typical three term Government, the next splattering of mud might not be wiped from the face of the Government.

Hopefully Labour is about to step up a gear as a result of this shadow cabinet revision because by the time the summer holidays end, there will only be a year and a half until the 2017 election.

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