CHEERS! With Christchurch East in the bag, David Cunliffe needs to give increasing attention not only to winning in 2014, but also to how his government intends to establish a "Leftward and interventionist" administration in the teeth of extreme neoliberal opposition from an ideologically hostile civil service.
LABOUR PARTY MEMBERS and supporters are still celebrating Saturday’s decisive by-election victory in Christchurch East. With more than 60 percent of the votes cast, Poto Williams well-and-truly dispelled the nagging fear that National’s 2011 Party Vote advantage might preface a morale-sapping defeat.
For avoiding this outcome fulsome tribute must be paid to Ms William’s campaign manager, Jim Anderton. Few political operators can match Mr Anderton’s fighting skills in the trench warfare that is electorate politics. Among the most important of these is the ability to pre-identify your party’s supporters and make sure they cast a vote. Mr Anderton and his team did this with a thoroughness that National clearly could not match. Not even the low turnout (roughly 13,000 compared to 28,524 in 2011) could upset Mr Anderton’s calculations – indeed, the decisive result points to just how successfully his campaign team was able to mobilise the Labour vote.
If Labour is wise it will attempt to replicate Saturday’s mobilisation effort in Christchurch East across the entire country in 2014. In next year’s big battle, however, the prize will not be electorate seats (though they will be welcome!) but a clear plurality of the all-important Party Vote.
To that end, Labour’s leader, David Cunliffe, must assemble a policy package of sufficient power to dislodge the hundreds of thousands of disillusioned and/or despairing Non-Voters and propel them towards the polling booths. Psephological analysis of the 2011 General Election’s record-breaking abstention rate indicates that approximately 70 percent of the Non-Vote was drawn from demographic categories most likely to vote Labour.
To paraphrase Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: “Build it [an authentic Labour manifesto] – and they will come [out and vote for it].”
And that, clearly, was the message Mr Cunliffe took from his party’s emphatic by-election victory. Ms Williams, he said, had formed “a genuine connection” with the electorate’s voters. But, there was something more: “Our grassroots campaign in Christchurch East was run and won on the issues facing the city. On housing, insurance and standing up for people in the rebuild.”
According to Fairfax Media’s political correspondent, Vernon Small: “It all suggests Labour under Cunliffe see the by-election as a sign the party should press on even more strongly in the Leftward and interventionist direction it has taken so far.”
Brave intentions! But one of the biggest challenges facing a political leader striving to make the transition from Opposition Leader to Prime Minister is not only to be thinking constantly about how to win power, but also about how he is going to wield it once victory is achieved.
Sixty or so MPs, seated in the House of Representatives, may have the power to change the laws of the land, but the drafting and execution of those laws falls to a vast and highly complex bureaucracy which has, for the past 30 years, administered the state, managed the economy and generally guided society according to the widely accepted principles and practices of neoliberalism.
Over-riding these, of course, is the convention that civil servants must carry out the instructions of their political masters to the very best of their ability. That is not to say, however, that they will (or should) meekly receive those instructions without venturing an opinion concerning the desirability of the course of action proposed. Civil servants have a duty to provide their ministers with “free and frank” advice. A Labour-led Government determined to radically redirect the New Zealand state along “Leftward and interventionist” lines would be wise to anticipate a fair amount of “free and frank” resistance.
Mr Cunliffe, rejoicing in the democratic wind filling his sails following Saturday’s bracing victory, should be asking himself how many of the men and women likely to form his Cabinet possess the ideological confidence to stare down officials whose unanimous advice will almost certainly be that their party’s policy amounts to the purest folly, which, if implemented, will lead ineluctably to economic, fiscal and/or social disaster.
It’s an important question. Mounting a confident defence of “Leftward and interventionist” policies in the face of voluminous and coherently argued objections from one’s most senior policy advisers is no easy task. Mr Cunliffe should know that only a handful of Labour and Green MPs are even remotely capable of out-arguing neoliberalism. In New Zealand, the number of left-wing politicians with the foresight to cultivate and maintain strong relationships with policy specialists external to and independent of our neoliberal civil service is depressingly small.
With Christchurch East behind him, it will be interesting to see how aggressively Mr Cunliffe sets about developing and releasing the core policies of the next Labour-led Government. It’s a task that brooks no delay because if Labour and the Greens do not set their own policies before the election, then, most assuredly, their officials will do it for them afterwards.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 December 2013.