Phil Quin, one of the people linked to the new right-of-Labour group Progress, has had an article about unity published in the Herald. Here’s a flavour:
Disunity within caucus seriously undermined Labour's credibility," the [Labour election review] stated. This aligns neatly with a view, ubiquitous in media and political circles, that Labour is prone to destructive factional wrangling; and that MPs were so hopelessly divided under David Cunliffe that it doomed the party's chances. I think it's nonsense. […]
More broadly, the Unity Hypothesis posits that party unity breeds success and, without it, electoral oblivion awaits. This is backwards: it is political success that engenders unity, and the pursuit of unity at all costs is immensely damaging.
I think Phil’s misguided on both counts, mainly because he’s arguing from supposition rather than evidence.
Last year I worked on Labour’s campaign in a relatively senior role, and as a result I had access to some of our internal research, including opinion polls and focus groups.
When people in focus groups reported having voted Labour in the past, but reported planning to vote National in 2014, they were often asked: “why have you changed your mind?” In response, issues of unity, backstabbing, in fighting, and so on came up immediately, spontaneously, and repeatedly. Sitting behind the one-way glass listening to that was no fun at all.
Of course, revealing this finding is no great secret, because National had this information from its own research, the 2014 election is now well and truly over, and the research accords with the dominant view among everyone except Phil.
Secret or not, this finding is crucial. Voters were reporting that they felt disunity was a good enough reason not to consider voting Labour in 2014. They weren’t prodded into saying so; it was just their genuine perception.
In politics, remember, perception is reality.
That means there was clear evidence from the focus groups – backed by the down-survey questions in Labour’s polling – that “disunity” really was a cause of vote loss for Labour in 2014. Whether that disunity was perceived or real is decidedly secondary. In fact, I agree with Phil there wasn’t much actual disunity in 2014. What matters is it caused vote-loss anyway.
This evidence seriously undercuts Phil’s claim that disunity had nothing to do with Labour’s 2014 performance. The voters say it did.
But what of his second point, that seeking unity as a path to success is bass-ackwards? Phil thinks instead that success is the path to unity.
Well, the voters get a say there, too. And the voters told our researchers over and over again that, from their perspective, a perceived lack of unity was a barrier between Labour and success.
Success and unity are in a chicken-egg relationship. They’re symbiotic. They’re endogenous. Success will breed further unity; I think Phil is right about that. But any disunity now makes that initial dose of success ever harder to achieve. I don’t need suppositions or arguments from personal experience to make that argument – I just asked the voters.
That brings me to a broader point about Progress. Last week I welcomed Progress on to the scene, on the basis that another voice promoting positions left of the current government is a good thing. I took comfort in Stuart Nash’s view that Progress wasn’t a new faction within Labour.
I sure hope Phil – who likes the idea of factions within Labour – read Stuart’s comments carefully. His column suggests perhaps he should give Stuart a call.
If Progress ends up being merely a group that engages in internal Labour debates via newspaper columns, the only winners will be National. I remain hopeful it won’t go that way.
Rob Salmond blogs at polity.co.nz.