On the Labour Party leadership race

Newness is in the air, in every sight and every sound. Both candidates seeking to become Labour’s next leader have been citing the need for change, and claiming they’re the right broom for the job – whether it require a change of direction, a revamp of the Labour Brand, the learning of lessons from the election defeat… whatever. Meanwhile, the pundits have been offering their five cents on the substance of the change required.

With all respect to the Herald’s John Armstrong, his suggested response on the weekend reads like a suicide note for Labour. Armstrong urged Labour to drop its allegedly’ crazy’ plan to take GST off fruit and vegetables and ditto apparently for raising the retirement age and bringing in a capital gains tax.

Supposedly, Labour’s regeneration would also require ditching opposition to asset sales and national standards, and embracing welfare reform, private prisons etc etc. The logic behind this wholesale surrender being – apparently – that since large numbers of voters had chosen a National-led government advocating such measures, then the only way forward for Labour would be to adopt virtually the same policy bundle. In other words, not merely a new National Lite image for the Labour Party but a wholesale cloning of the Key government’s agenda.

Needless to say, that would be a total over-reaction. Obviously, the new leadership of the Labour Party can’t merely move rightwards – as Armstrong advocates – if only because it faces strong opposition on its left flank as well. The Green Party are poised to mop up any Labourites alienated by an abject lurch to the right.

For what its worth, I think the way forward for Labour’s new leader is one entirely consistent with its traditions. It would involve a focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. Just as the Greens’ identity is grounded in its advocacy for the environment, Labour’s raison d’etre has always been work opportunities and better conditions for Kiwi battlers and the hard pressed middle class.

There is little need to mimic National’s current array of policies – they will prove self defeating soon enough – especially since many of those policies (eg, asset sales) are far less popular with the public than the personality of National’s current leader, John Key. That personality has already taken some hits in the election, as even the Economist magazine says:

The [Epsom tea party] episode has conjured an air of shiftiness that cuts against his image. It also made him enemies among media which have generally, so far, given him an easy run. Its second term is starting to seem already littered with pitfalls for Mr Key’s government.

The realities of a difficult second term are likely to take the gloss of Key’s appeal far more comprehensively than anything that could be achieved from a panicky transformation of Labour’s entire shop window. New Zealand is not a contented and complacent society. It is an anxious community under pressure. Time, therefore, is on Labour’s side.

The more fruitful, long term response would be to offer economic policies that satisfy the need for security on one hand, while promoting a more decent and fair society on the other – which would not be difficult, given the current settings. Labour’s tradition is uniquely in tune with that approach. After all, it created the welfare safety net which, for all its critics, still holds an important place in our national identity, even within John Key’s brand of compassionate conservatism. Rather than embrace welfare reform, Labour has to defend the families who, through little fault of their own, will see their lives made worse by a government that seems unable to create jobs, and fulfil its part of the social contract.

Of the two candidates on offer, David Shearer seems able to project that blend of decency and pragmatism more readily than David Cunliffe – whose attacking skills appear to be misdirected around 50% of the time. (Cunliffe’s readiness to consider re-nationalising the energy SOEs is an example of his tendency to shoot first, and sort out the details afterwards.) At this point, Labour has to hold the line and practice a form of asymmetric warfare against National’s big battalions – again, Shearer’s real and apparent lack of guile will help in that respect – and consistently oppose National’s plans until such time as the public pass their own judgement on Key and his Emperor’s New Clothes act.

The obvious risk with Shearer is that his relative lack of guile and attacking skills could be cruelly exposed in the Parliamentary bear pit of Question Time. If, under pressure, Shearer came across as a bumbling centre-left version of Don Brash, the party would be on a one way ticket to irrelevance. Labour and its new leader therefore, will need to practice the art of staying calm under fire – which, presumably, is a skill that Shearer also found useful in his UN postings in Iraq and elsewhere.

It is a cliché, but oppositions rarely win elections in New Zealand. Governments lose them. With Shearer at the helm, Labour’s new leadership need not carry out wholesale change to look like a viable, decent alternative in 2014 to the politics of business as usual. Can he be an effective foil for John Key? Maybe. What we’re really talking about is likeability, or the marketing of the unassuming. Because, despite all the talk about excellence…ironically, in New Zealand, the battle for political primacy in 2014 will come down to who seems to have the most convincingly ordinary personality.


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