Labour in denial on election

21:07, Jun 02 2014
Chris Trotter
COLUMNIST: Chris Trotter.

Stalled at 30 per cent in the polls, Labour is still pretending it can win the general election without help.

Bluntly speaking, the party is in a state of serious, collective denial. The most frightening aspect of which, from the perspective of those New Zealanders seeking a change of government in September, is that while the condition persists National cannot possibly be defeated. Heedless, the Labour Party continues to fly from the reality of its own poor performance. Even worse, it's begun flying from the reality of its own history.

Over the past few weeks Labour's boosters have begun to brag that the party's membership is the highest it has been in 30 years.

Let's just pause for a moment and unpick that statement.

Thirty years ago, in June 1984, the "ordinary" or "branch" membership of the NZ Labour Party stood at 85,000. In addition to these card-carrying members, an additional 12,500 individuals were contributing regularly to the party's "Victory For Labour" fund. The trade union affiliate membership of the Labour Party, in that era of mass union membership, stood somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000.

With this vast membership, organised into hundreds of branches across the country, it is not difficult to understand why the registered voter turnout in the snap election of 1984 was a record 93.7 per cent. Nor is it surprising to learn that even in a first-past-the-post election featuring four serious contenders (Labour, National, Social Credit and Bob Jones's New Zealand Party) the David Lange-led Labour Party secured 43 per cent of the votes cast.


Knowing this, and hearing Labour's present leadership boast about the party having more members than it had in 1984 is, understandably, a little jarring. Yes, the party benefited hugely from the influx of members that accompanied last September's leadership election. Membership may well have doubled, as many boosters insist. But even if that's true, the current membership total is still relatively modest. The best estimates place it somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 - well short of that mid-80s peak.

(There is, of course, a chance that my informants' estimates could be wrong. Something Labour could rectify in an instant by releasing its full membership details to the news media.)

I am concentrating on Labour's putative numbers because they form the basis for David Cunliffe's increasingly wacky optimism.

He is being told that with this vastly expanded army of volunteers at his back, and with a software package capable of identifying the voters Labour needs to win, the party's parlous position in the polls, and its crippling lack of funds, will, on election day, be gloriously transcended and, in the rich glow of victory, the pundits will be required to eat a heapin' helpin' of Crow.

But Cunliffe should do the maths.

Only 10 per cent of any membership base should ever be counted on to make a consistent contribution to the cause. Back in 1984 that rule-of-thumb gave the party organisation around 10,000 reliable activists on the ground. An average of 105 activists per electorate. That same rule, applied to the best estimates of the party's membership base, yields Labour just 28 activists per electorate in 2014.

Cunliffe is being spun a fantasy. Twenty-eight activists per electorate simply cannot lift Labour's level of support from 30 per cent to 43 per cent of the popular vote. Believing Labour can replicate the extraordinary effort and turnout of 1984 is an exercise in collective delirium.

It ain't gonna happen.

When Cunliffe openly acknowledges that he will only become prime minister with the backing of the Greens and the Internet-Mana Party, Labour will have taken the first important step towards political recovery.

When he takes the public into his confidence about the range of policies he would be prepared to live with in the interests of building a strong coalition government, then the voters will begin to extend their trust.

When Labour casts aside Winston Peters' absurd notion that voters are somehow advantaged by being required to buy a pig in a poke - only getting to see exactly what sort of pig, and what sort of poke, when it's too late for them to do anything about either - will the electorate recover the power to determine the content of their preferred coalition government's mandate before the election.

At the heart of Labour's political malady lies the crooked notion that the right to govern is theirs and theirs alone.

That, having been withheld from them by the ignorance of the electorate, they have only to wait for the voters, pricked by their consciences, to hand power back to them, unexamined and untouched, so that they may resume their governance of the country from precisely the point they were so rudely and ungratefully required to surrender it.

Not surprisingly, the Government's opponents are taking precautions against such political insanity.

The Press