David Cunliffe has vowed to become the candidate for the party centrist.
This presents Cunliffe with a major predicament: keep the Labour faithful voting positive whilst gathering sufficient support from swing-voters and those who normally don’t vote.
To do so Cunliffe needs to utilise the experience of MP’s such as Shearer, Goff and Parker in the election campaign and maintain distance from the more discredited and radical factions within Labour – despite the fact that these factions helped catapult Cunliffe into the leadership.
If Cunliffe can portray a more unified and centrist opposition, he will be more likely to challenge Key. If not, he will find himself undermined from within and disillusioned by those swing-voters who want a common-sense and moderate alternative to National.
In recent weeks education reform has been at the centrepiece of Cunliffe’s focus and may indeed attract a fair few of these swing-voters.
Quantity v quality for education
Cunliffe’s address to around 1,000 members and delegates at Labour’s election year Congress last week was predominantly about education reform.
Labour’s strategy is to reduce class size to fund one teacher to 26 students at primary schools from 2018, and introduce a maximum average class size of 23 at secondary schools. In total an extra 2,000 teachers will find employment.
National’s policy aims to improve quality of teaching by granting executive functions for principals and performance pay for teachers.
This will cost the current government $359 million to implement while Labour’s class size policy, in combination with other educational policies, will cost about $850 million over four years.
Come 20 September voters will have an unequivocal choice for the future of New Zealand education.
Cunliffe is hoping to attract those middle-class parents who are concerned about the state of public schools. However, many will not be seduced so easily.
Every parent believes that more teacher one-on-one time with their child will improve their education. It is an alluring political offer. However, quality teaching is far more crucial and the government has to draw a line somewhere in regards to expenses.
Also, at the back of voters minds will be the role teachers unions are playing in policy proposals for education.
Teacher unions are continuing to support the lower ratio model for class size in the face of innovative new teaching methods such as team teaching of larger classes. The scheme involves taking an exceptional teacher out of a school for two days a week and having him or her contribute to other schools nearby.
Not surprisingly, Labour is advocating the unions’ dogma that each trained teacher, regardless of merit, is as good as the next and that education automatically improves when class size is smaller.
Many undecided voters will be weary of the tendency of teachers unions to place more emphasis on the ‘rights’ of their constituents rather than the ‘rights’ of pupils to a quality education.
Although Cunliffe’s class size policy may be an oversimplified solution to education in New Zealand, he has the easier line to sell. Thus he may be able to keep his constituency happy whilst chipping away at swing-voters and those who normally don’t vote.
However, he will have a tougher sell when it comes to his economic policies.
The economic vote
Under a Labour led government the marginal income tax rate will increase for those earning more than $150,000 a year from 33c to 36c in the dollar.
This, in combination with a matching increasing in the trust tax rate, would bring an additional $400 million a year in 2015/2016 and $600 million two years later.
Despite having a positive effect on the budget deficit – as long as these tax increases don’t begin to burden economic growth and hence taxable income, which is not a given – it is a tough sell to the New Zealand public.
In a recent article Sir Bob Jones labelled Cunliffe as a socialist liability. Speaking of an acquaintance of his Sir Bob wrote:
“I know someone who, through much hard work, became wealthy in the last few years. He has a sentimental historic attachment to the Labour Party, as do many affluent individuals, and he was planning a six-figure donation this year, chuffed at his new-found capability to do so.
But he was outraged after hearing a Cunliffe interview following the leadership race. “Will you raise taxes on higher incomes?” Cunliffe was asked. “You betcha,” the new leader exclaimed with gusto. My acquaintance was angry for, as he said: “I’ve worked my butt off and the tone of Cunliffe’s enthusiasm to punish me for this was sickening.”
“Will you now vote National?” I teased, knowing he’d never hitherto done so. “You betcha,” he exclaimed.”
Cunliffe’s predicament is clear – most of the Labour electorate are convinced of the efficacy of a tax increase on the so called ‘rich’ but many swing-voters and a minority of Labour faithful will reject it on principal.
Indeed, the 2014 Household Incomes Report showed that income inequality in New Zealand has mostly remained the same since the mid-1990’s.
This contradicts the Greens and Labour’s narrative that inequality has increased under Key’s government.
Also adding to Cunliffe’s political woes is the recent credit rating improvement by Credit agency Fitch. New Zealand’s rating outlook went from stable to positive due to the resilience of New Zealand’s sovereign credit profile.
This is a positive vote of confidence in the New Zealand economy and sends a direct message to the electorate that the economy is being managed prudently under National.
Cunliffe faces an Everest-like challenge in returning Labour to power come September. The problem for Cunliffe is that the culture in New Zealand has shifted to the right and many of the MP’s in Labour have remained stubbornly to the left and some even further to the left.
If you look at most polls this is undeniable.