Labour's dismal handling of its election reform proposals demonstrates the same basic failure that almost cost them the last election: a failure to make the argument or even try to win over the public. There is a strong case to be made for public funding and greater transparency - but Labour hasn't made it. Rather than responding to the leaking of their policy by trying to convince the public of the need to prevent money undermining our democracy, they responded with sullen silence for most of the week. It wasn't until Thursday that any Labour MP spoke up for the proposals - and then only because the Brethren presented a target too good to ignore.
Maybe the government thought that their plans would not be popular with the public, and so decided to remain silent. But as I've pointed out before, you don't win arguments by not making them. By not even bothering to advocate for their policies, they yielded the battlefield to the Opposition, allowing National to frame the debate. In the process, they passed up a perfect opportunity to win over the public and have us pressure the opposition and the minor parties for reform, rather than allowing them to pressure Labour for the status quo.
Labour has made this same mistake over civil unions, "political correctness", public spending and tax cuts - the latter almost costing them the 2005 election. As for why they do it, it is because they apparently don't believe in political leadership. Labour party official and blogger Jordan Carter has been quite explicit: political parties are just "logs floating down a river". They can't lead public opinion; they can only follow it. There's a valid point here about the limits of political power. But there's also a mistake in viewing public opinion as a given, rather than as something politicians can change.
Theodore Roosevelt once referred to the US Presidency as a bully pulpit - by which he meant a superb platform from which to advocate for an agenda. Within New Zealand, holding the government benches is the best bully pulpit you can get. When a Minister says something, the media listen. The requirement for balance means they will seek out alternative views, but the government's position will be reported, allowing the public to assess it on its own merits. Labour is systematically wasting this opportunity - and in doing so pissing away one of their biggest advantages. I don't know whether it is stupidity, or the hubris of seven and a half years in office in an MMP environment which has led them to draw the conclusion that everything can be dealt with by negotiating with other parties, and that the wider public don't matter - but either way if they don't start actually talking to us and trying to persuade us of their programme (to the extent that they actually have one), they will receive - and deserve - a good kicking at the next election.