Factionalism – it’s a killer…

It is a truth universally acknowledged (well, it’s repeated so often by the punditry that it must be true!) that the public hates discord and division in a political party. The public wants stable government, and any party that can’t keep its own members in line is seen as Not Ready To Govern.

Following the latest Herald-Digipoll, showing Labour plunging back down into the late-20s, many pundits have been quick to try and deconstruct exactly why Labour’s doing so badly. A failure to put forward an over-arching vision? An over-arching vision that’s just unpalatable to the average punter? Women not able to vote for David Cunliffe because they don’t like his face? Cunliffe’s inability to make a public speech without appearing to mislead the public or look like a hypocrite?

David Cunliffe has blamed the poll result on his recent issues with secret trusts. It’s all behind him now, he says, and fortunes will be reversed for the better. But he would say that… He also reckons that Labour’s private polling puts them at 34%. Now there’s a problem there, which is that 34% is still not a particularly good number. And the best that Labour has reached in any major poll this year is 34%, and that was a one-off from the last Colmar-Brunton poll.

Basically, Labour has been sitting in the early-30s doldrums for quite some time now, and explanations are needed beyond simply the day-to-day scandals and beltway issues that are quickly forgotten by the public.

To me, it comes down to factionalism; there are so many warring factions in Labour right now, that deep down in the public’s collective consciousness, the public just don’t see Labour as a viable governing party. Cunliffe can make as many uplifting visionary speeches as he likes, but it won’t make a lick of difference unless the public believe that his team believe it. Because a leader can’t prepare, package and sell the entire policy platform that supports the broad over-arching vision. To put the idea into company-speak, the CEO needs middle-management buy-in to make a success of the company’s vision statement, and frankly, Labour’s “middle-management” (its MPs) just aren’t there.

A few examples: Phil Goff runs foreign policy how he damn well likes, and seems to take great delight in issuing press releases that seem to contradict what his leader said earlier that day. Cunliffe talks up the Labour-Greens relationship, while Shane Jones continues a one-man crusade against them. That the ‘Anyone But Cunliffe’ (ABC) section of Labour’s parliamentary wing exists is common knowledge.

That’s not to say that the problem is Labour’s alone. Both National and Labour operate as broad church parties, full of competing ideologies. Even the minor parties have their issues – the Greens have their struggle between the hard-core activists and those who want to take a more moderate business-friendly approach; ACT tore itself apart as it swung between ideological social liberalism and conservative Garth McVicar-ism; while United Future has collected and dumped all sorts of odd little factions in its time, including the hunting lobby and a bunch of Christian conservatives.

Nonetheless, Labour needs to take a good hard look at itself, work together and heal a few rifts. Otherwise, the public simply won’t bother listening. The mid-30s will be as good as it gets. Can they do it in time? Probably not. Perception can be a time-consuming thing to change, and there’s only six months.

One final point on factionalism – it’s easier to keep dissenters under wraps in the good times. Does anyone really think that when National’s ratings start to fall and John Key steps down (whichever happens first), that National won’t turn feral as the pragmatists and ideologues battle it out for supremacy? It will certainly be worth bringing popcorn for, but it’s probably quite some time away, judging from Labour’s problems…

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