Labour back on to the front foot
Though you wouldn’t know it from some responses to last weekend’s Labour Party conference in Christchurch, Labour leader David Cunliffe is not, in fact, planning a Bolshevik revival.
Certainly, anyone attending the conference would have been hard pressed to find either sight or sound of revolution in the air.
The main policies unveiled were a proposal to create a competitive Kiwi insurance company along the lines of Kiwibank, and a detailed blueprint for resolving the affordable housing crisis in Christchurch.
Hardly the Communist Manifesto.
Without exception, the conference remits were a mild modernisation of the party’s traditional direction.
The quota remit to increase the representation of women among Labour MPs from the current 41 per cent to 45 per cent (after the 2014 election) struck party President Moira Coatsworth as readily achievable, given the calibre of women candidates coming forward.
For years, Coatsworth added, female candidates of merit had been disadvantaged on the grounds of their gender.
As a consequence, women are 51 per cent of the population but still comprise only a third of all MPs in Parliament, 120 years after universal suffrage.
As the conference demonstrated, Cunliffe enjoys support from a broad spectrum of the party, which appears motivated less by ideology than by concerns that many New Zealanders are being poorly served by current government policies. Again, hardly a radical view. The delegates looked like a fairly representative sample of middle New Zealand.
Young Labourites in their 20s rubbed shoulders with veterans of Labour Party conferences since 1971.
Grey Power members sat beside young Internet entrepreneurs.
Lorde’s hit song Royals (not The Red Flag) was the preface to Cunliffe’s keynote speech.
All this bears repeating if only because conformity between the two major parties has held sway for so long.
For years, Labour has been slowly chuntering downhill on an empty tank from the so- called Third Way policies that it borrowed wholesale from Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
In their infinite wisdom, the Third Way advocates have argued that Labour needed to abandon its blue-collar constituents and focus on trying to win over those whitecollar professionals who seem liberal on social issues.
Problem being, the social issues that became Labour’s sole badge of authenticity also earned it mockery as an out-of-touch party of political correctness.
Along the way, Labour quietly embraced the dry economic policies that were systematically destroying the jobs of the party’s traditional base.
That approach needs to change, as Cunliffe pointed out in a speech last year.
Labour has to define afresh what it stands for in the wake of a global financial crisis that has driven the last nails into a neoliberal economic orthodoxy that has failed many voters over the past 30 years.
As Cunliffe put it: ‘‘ When the right-wing party says it’s going to cut your leg off, voters don’t want to be told that the left-wing party is also going to cut your leg off, but cut it off a bit lower down and give you some anaesthetic.’’
Unfortunately, some Chicken Lickens now feel the sky is falling because a major opposition party has begun to oppose current practice, and to propose alternatives.
That is democratic choice, not radicalism.
It is only because we haven’t seen it for long that some are finding it hard to recognise.