It must surely be tempting fate to mention it, but there
are definite signs Labour has finally emerged from its long
bleak winter of dysfunction, despair and inertia.
The party is starting to look like it actually wants to win
September's general election, rather than crashing to yet
another Glorious Defeat. It is starting to look like it is
ready to govern.
With election day a mere four months away, the new urgency
has arrived not a moment too soon.
It is hard to put a finger on exactly what has made the
difference such that Labour is now doing things right.
But across a number of fronts, the party seems far more
focused. The positions it is taking on issues are less
knee-jerk. It is no longer taking the easy options. It is no
longer partaking in opposition for opposition's sake.
There was one small example this week: Labour's offer to help
National get part of its resource management amending
legislation through Parliament to speed up approvals for new
housing, particularly in Auckland.
Obviously Labour was looking to win public kudos for
supporting an urgently needed government measure, while also
embarrassing National by coming to its rescue after its
allies all refused to play ball.
Not surprisingly, National would not play ball with Labour.
Normally, however, Labour would have not lifted a finger to
help the old enemy. It would have left National to stew.
David Cunliffe and his shadow cabinet are starting to heed
the fact they could be in government in a few short months.
That places demands on the party to be responsible, rather
The voting public probably have not discerned any change in
Labour, but they will. And they are likely to give Labour
credit for taking moderate stances rather than extreme ones,
because that is what they expect Labour to do.
Take immigration. Cunliffe's mention that the last Labour
Government had a net target of 5000 to 15,000 incoming
migrants was widely misinterpreted - including by his own
housing spokesman Phil Twyford - as the target for a
But while Cunliffe would adjust migrant numbers downwards to
take pressure off the Auckland housing market, he is not
putting numbers on it. He knows you cannot talk about a
modern skills-based economy in one breath and slash the
skilled migrant intake the next.
Cunliffe is very much part of Labour's renaissance, even
though he is still occasionally susceptible to being too
clever by three-quarters.
However, the prospect of possibly being prime minister soon
is starting to hit home.
He turned in an accomplished performance during his
post-Budget appearance last weekend on TV3's The Nation, in
stark contrast to his mediocre speech in the Budget debate in
Parliament a couple of days earlier.
Then, he resorted to his standard ''National is mugging the
poor'' diatribe. The mock anger contradicted his initial
observation that the Budget was chock-full of policy stolen
The speech's fiery rhetoric did little more than preach to an
already-converted minority and had little bearing on the
future lives of the great bulk of voters.
It was to that majority to which Cunliffe was shrewdly
pitching a far more positive message on The Nation. He was
relaxed and natural. He did not try to stuff things down his
He did not duck questions. He did not pretend Labour had all
the answers. But he pointed to Labour's set of interlocking
policies that, when put together, the party claims with some
validity, add up to a viable medium-term strategy for raising
the living standards of New Zealanders.
For much of this parliamentary term, Labour's lack of
defining policies saw the party being suffocated by National
on one side and the Greens on the other.
Labour was never in serious danger of being supplanted by the
latter as the major party on the left. But it seemed quite
possible the balance of power between the two might end up
more in the Greens' favour. However, the lift in the polls
the Greens were counting on never materialised.
If there has been a turning point for Labour in what was
shaping as a pretty dreadful year for the party, it was the
release of its well-received rejigging of monetary policy.
Labour's intention to use KiwiSaver as a brake on interest
rate rises caught National off-guard.
Of crucial importance to Labour was that it was able to argue
that National did not have a monopoly on the various
instruments for running the economy. To Labour's good
fortune, by the time National got around to presenting some
rather compelling evidence pouring doubt on whether Labour's
innovations would make much difference, the debate had moved
It was a rare political victory for Labour, made even sweeter
by National's struggle to cope with a simultaneous
mega-problem: Judith Collins. Suddenly, National no longer
Labour's economic strategy cannot be explained in a few short
sound bites. Because this big-picture macroeconomic framework
makes some less-than-popular choices with respect to
retirement policy and a capital gains tax, however, it offers
vision with which National's mainly microeconomic agenda
It also paints Labour as working in the national interest -
thus offsetting National's justifiable claim to have been
doing the same in getting the Government's books back into
Of course, things could still turn to custard. We are talking
about the Labour Party, after all. But there is a very good
reason they will not - Matt McCarten, the former Alliance
warhorse, trade union official and now Cunliffe's chief of
It is no accident his arrival has coincided with Labour's
revival. He has unified and galvanised Labour's staff. He has
initiated a culture change that puts winning first and
internal party politics catering to MPs' egos a distant
second. He will throw everything he can into securing
He also understands elections are won and lost in the
political centre. His status on the left is thus of
considerable advantage in knocking back some of the more
politically questionable contributions from that quarter.
One question lingers: where would Labour be now had McCarten
come on board when Cunliffe became leader last September,
rather than at the start of this year? Those four months were
wasted months. They could still end up costing Cunliffe
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political