Labour's problems bigger than Darren Hughes

Now that the dust seems to be settling over Phil Goff’s handling of the Darren Hughes affair, it’s worth remembering that this is not central to Labour’s woes.

Labour’s real problem is that it hasn’t got a politically appealing alternative to National.

That, not what happened in a Kilbirnie house between two adults late one night after a drinking session in several pubs, is what Labour needs to be concerned about.

Likewise it is not a problem of leadership. Goff may not have handled the matter well, but changing the leader will not fix the real problem, whoever the new leader might be.

Look at the polls. National led Labour by 20% (53% to 33%) in February. It has not led by less than 10% since the 2008 election. Labour has not closed the gap on National and is showing no signs of doing so.

All the problems facing Labour were apparent before the Hughes affair, and would still be present even if that matter magically disappeared from public view. 

Labour’s attacks on issues like unemployment, welfare reform, GST and price rises, tax changes and possible asset sales have not dented National’s lead.

After the 2008 election I argued that there was a way back for Labour, but three things needed to happen.

First, things had to go wrong and voters had to blame the National led government for those problems. That hasn’t happened. National survived the global financial crisis largely unpunished by voters. Right now the massive rises in the price of petrol, and the strife in the world aren’t being blamed on National.

Perversely disasters like Pike River and the Christchurch earthquakes have sidelined Labour and have given Mr Key lots of positive publicity.

Secondly Labour had to reconnect with its traditional voting base, because too many of its socially conservative voters had been alienated by the social reforms sanctioned and championed by the Helen Clark government.

National won the party vote in traditional Labour seats like Mount Roskill, Maungakiekie, New Lynn, Te Atatu, Palmerston North, Port Hills, Wellington Central, and Waimakariri.

The polls do not show orthodox Labour voters, who went to National last time, coming back to the fold.

Thirdly the Greens had to do better. The Greens need to increase their vote without cannibalizing it from Labour. The two parties need a joint strategy to increase the total centre left vote. There isn’t one at the moment.

Even the ructions in the Maori Party don’t necessarily help Labour. Voters who left Labour over the foreshore and seabed issue may desert the Maori Party too, but it will be for Hone’s waka, not the Labour ship.

Unless Labour can increase its appeal to the broad mass of ordinary New Zealanders, demonstrate that it has credible alternative policies that clearly distinguish it from National – and from the Greens – and unless it can create and lead a more effective centre left grouping, then it will lose the next election, whoever is the leader and whatever happens to Mr Hughes.