Phil Quin looks at the comparison between Labour in NZ and Labor in Australia, and finds the difference isn’t just a ‘u’.
The Australian experience suggests the answer for Labour in New Zealand is not “change the leader”, the knee-jerk response most often preferred. The ALP is within reach, if not exactly favoured, in the coming election despite having a leader with frankly atrocious numbers. Traumatized by the Rudd-Gillard wars, MPs and activists have by and large rallied behind Shorten (albeit a loveless loyalty in many cases), who has in turn worked hard to restore the party to viability.
Compared to Shorten, Phil Goff had it easy in 2008. Helen Clark and Michael Cullen had left Labour in decent shape. And yet, despairingly, Labour’s share of the vote has declined in each subsequent election as the party turned inwards, interpreting each defeat as anything but a repudiation; blaming instead the electorate’s inability to “see through” the diabolical Key, the spectre of “dirty politics” (known in Australia and elsewhere as “politics”), one million dogmatically left-wing voters who habitually forget to vote, David Cunliffe, the mythic ‘Anyone But Cunliffes’, or, at barrel’s bottom, residual fury at the party’s embrace of neoliberalism in the Eighties. That voters might have got it right in their intuition that Labour fails to demonstrate readiness for government is never countenanced.
Labour’s refusenik posture was never more graphically on display than in the review of Cunliffe’s defeat by former UK Labour MP Bryan Gould: the key to Labour’s rejuvenation, Gould insisted, is pretending to get along at all costs – perpetuating the self-serving myth that internal bickering, real and imagined, is all the only thing standing between the party and its destiny. Proponents of this position would point to the Rudd/Gillard experience, but they are confusing an ingredient for the whole recipe: not tearing one another apart is a necessary prerequisite to electoral success, but it is not, on its own, sufficient.