Labour needs leftist edge back

Labour leader David Cunliffe.
Labour leader David Cunliffe.

With Labour's poll numbers faltering, there will undoubtedly be much agitated discussion in the office of the Leader of the Opposition.

"What's wrong with everybody?" David Cunliffe's advisers will wail. "Why didn't anyone like KiwiAssure? What was not to like about a state-owned insurance company? What on earth do people want?"

Well, if the news from abroad is anything to go by, they want a good deal more than the cautious gestures they've seen so far. Indeed, if the research published recently in both Britain and the United States is correct, a substantial chunk of the electorate is willing to embrace economic and social policies that are genuinely, unashamedly radical.

A YouGov survey for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) think tank, carried out at the end of last month, showed UK voters "strongly support state-imposed price controls on the utilities, re-nationalisation of the railways and Royal Mail, an end to private cash in the public sector and even state power to regulate rents".

Putting it bluntly: a solid majority of the UK electorate is well to the left of Ed Miliband's Labour Party.

Nick Assinder, the political editor of the International Business Times, summed up the poll results rather incredulously with the observation: "[I]f the findings continue to be borne out as the general election campaign moves into top gear, and if Labour takes them to heart, it could spark the sort of ideological debate which Britain has not seen since the late 1970s and 1980s – for good or ill."

Something similar would appear to be happening on the other side of the Atlantic. New polling from Hart Research Associates, undertaken on behalf of Americans For Tax Fairness, indicates a strong, pundit-confounding, public appetite for imposing higher taxes on the rich.

On the liberal website, Campaign For America's Future, blogger Richard Eskow writes: "As that covert recording of Mitt Romney showed last year, some of the '1 per cent' think other Americans aren't pulling their own weight in this economy. As this new polling confirms, the feeling's mutual. By a 17 point margin (56 per cent to 39 per cent), the American people want the next budget agreement to include new tax revenues from corporations and the wealthy."

One of the reasons David Cunliffe won the leadership of the Labour Party was the widely held view among the party's rank-and-file that he – alone of all his rivals – "got" this.

On the day he announced his candidacy, his "you betcha" response to a question about raising taxes on the rich had thrilled not just his Labour Party followers, but a large portion of the wider electorate.

At Labour's annual conference, held in Christchurch at the beginning of this month, considerable behind-the-scenes diplomacy went on to smooth the rough edges off policy proposals from branch members and union affiliates who had taken Mr Cunliffe's radicalism at face value. For the most part, the radicals were happy to oblige – not wanting their man to be embarrassed in front of a sceptical news media.

But, if the trends from overseas are any guide, smoothing off the radical edges of Labour's policy platform was exactly the wrong thing to do. If Mr Cunliffe would improve his political fortunes, he should think about sharpening – not blunting – his party's attack on the status quo.

The Labour caucus, too, needs to summon up the courage to abandon what may turn out to have been its entirely unnecessary caution. It is one thing to protect the party leader from stepping beyond the limits of the electorate's tolerance; quite another to stand between the voters and the radical policies they're hungering for.

Neoliberalism has been weighed in the balance and found wanting – Labour MPs should not attempt to second-guess the zeitgeist.

Bill Clinton's campaign team's note-to-self, "It's the economy, stupid", has become the stuff of US political folklore – and a potent reminder to stay focused on voter priorities.

Perhaps Mr Cunliffe's note-to-self should be: "Radical policies for a radical electorate!"

The Dominion Post