Soft pedal needed on Labour policy
Since its rejection on election night, renewal has been in the air for the Labour Party.
Both candidates vying to replace Phil Goff as party leader have been talking about new directions, changes to the Labour brand and learning from the election defeat, despite an almost total absence of detail about what those lessons might be.
Nor have there been many insights offered into just how Brand Labour can credibly turn itself into a hot, new item of choice among the spin-weary public in Voterland.
In this political vacuum, the pundits have been offering their five cents on what needs to be dumped from Labour’s recent policy agenda – ie, virtually everything.
One Auckland-based analyst, for example, has urged Labour to drop its three campaign pledges: to take GST off fruit and vegetables; raise the retirement age; and bring in a capital gains tax.
And while it’s at it, apparently it should also abandon its opposition to asset sales and national standards, and embrace welfare reform and private prisons to boot.
The logic behind this wholesale surrender is that since voters have just elected a National Party advocating such measures, the only way ahead for the Labour Party would be to offer virtually the same policy bundle.
In practice, this would mean Labour not merely adopting a new National Lite-ish image, but also cloning the Key Government’s entire agenda.
Needless to say, that would be an over-reaction.
True, the new Labour leadership has to combat the Government on one flank, but on the other it has a Green Party poised to scoop up any Labourites alienated by a sudden lurch to the right.
Fortunately, there is one way forward for Labour’s new leader that would be entirely consistent with party traditions.
This would involve an unrelenting 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 for the hardpressed middle class.
There is little need to mimic National’s current array of policies – especially when Labour’s own polling has shown that many of those policies (eg, asset sales) are far less popular with the public than the personality of National leader, John Key.
The realities of a difficult second term are likely to take the gloss off Key’s personal charms more successfully than anything that could be achieved by an abrupt transformation of Labour’s shop window.
After all, New Zealand is not a contented and complacent society. It is an anxious community under pressure.
While critics have called for Labour’s new leader to toughen up on welfare, the more fruitful, longterm response would be to offer economic policies that satisfy the need for security on one hand, while promoting a more decent, fairer society on the other.
Labour’s tradition is uniquely in tune with that approach. It created the welfare safety net which, despite its critics, still forms an important part of the national identity, even within Key’s brand of compassionate conservatism.
As they say, oppositions do not win elections in New Zealand – governments lose them.
Labour’s new leadership need not carry out wholesale changes to be a viable, decent alternative in 2014 to the politics of business as usual.