Written By: James Henderson - Date published: 3:50 pm, October 22nd, 2012 - 98 comments
Categories: david cunliffe, david parker, david shearer, Economy, election 2014, grant robertson, greens, labour, russel norman - Tags:
I’ve been thinking about what you might call a ‘good problem’ for the Left.. but it leads me to a ‘problem problem’. OK, so let’s say we win the next election – as the Left must do and should do given how unpopular the Nats’ policies are and, for the last year, how inept their political management has been. How do you share the economic portfolios out?
With neither Shearer or Robertson having any economic pedigree, getting the economic team right is vital. And it also means the places are limited – Finance and Economic Development (now really a prize worth having after the creation of the MoBIE super-ministry) are the two economic portfolios worth a damn. Finance has long been as powerful as the Prime Ministership in many respects, and Joyce has grown Economic Development into something approaching their equal.
Now, Labour’s never going to sign over Finance to the Greens in a coalition deal – not unless they’re something very close to equal in size. So, if Labour’s line-up stays as is, Parker would take Finance. That leaves either Cunliffe or Norman to take MoBIE, and you would have to think that goes to Norman along with the Deputy Prime Ministership.
Which, worryingly, leaves the Left’s strongest economic advocate out in the cold and only one of the Labour-Green Government’s top five (Shearer, Robertson, Parker, Turei, and Norman) with the ability to really communicate on economic issues.
Wouldn’t it be craziness to see Cunliffe left out of the picture entirely with some nothing portfolio. The guy most able to take the public with him on economics, left on the sidelines – it would be a terrible waste and a costly one. And wouldn’t it be asking for trouble (and unpalatable for Labour) if no-one but Norman in the senior team could effectively explain economic and fiscal issues to the public?
Like I say, that’s a ‘good problem’, when you’ve got power and you’ve got too many capable people for the positions available. It could be perhaps solved by giving Norman the Deputy Prime Ministership and a grab-bag of junior economic portfolios although I can’t see Robertson enjoying being sidelined.
Which brings me to the ‘problem problem’ for Labour. It is so important to get the economic portfolios right only because the leadership doesn’t bring economic credentials of its own.
No matter which way you arrange the economic portfolios, Labour has the problem, just as it had with Goff and King, that neither its leader nor its deputy have strength in the most important and hotly-contested area of modern politics. Key, English, and Joyce make National’s top three and they are all strong on the economy (no, not strong at running an economy, but perceived as knowledgeable on economic issues). Going against that team with leaders who couldn’t match them on economics cost Labour in 2011 – we all remember Key’s ‘show me the money’, it only worked because it played into pre-existing narratives.
Framing an economic alternative to National is going to be vital to winning in 2014. That work is already underway with the anti-asset sales petition/referendum and the manufacturing crisis inquiry but it will need to be led from the top. The leader of Labour, the next PM, needs to be able to articulate that alternative. I think that if Shearer were better able to handle economic issues then Labour present a single face as the Greens can, and we would be looking at Labour and National neck and neck in the polls by now.
The next election, like the last one and the one before, will be fought on the economy. Key has already shown he can make mincemeat of an opponent who doesn’t feel comfortable speaking the language of economics – so Labour’s leadership had best be ready by then (also, how would it look if the leaders’ debate is a three-way debate with Norman as well? Shearer could end up playing second fiddle).
So two problems. The first – that Cunliffe, the Left’s most able economic communicator, would be supernumerary post-election with the current line-ups, which would make governing a lot harder. And the second – how to have Labour’s leadership ready to foot it with Key, English, and Joyce on economics in 2014? The answer may be crucial for the Left’s election chances.