What Labour needs to do
By Richard Harman (author)
Labour won’t like the analogy with its reference to the last election campaign and Kim Dotcom but this weekend’s party conference is their moment of truth.
Can they present themselves as a credible alternative Government?
It’s now nearly nine years since they held power and in the normal scheme of things that’s as long as any recent Government has survived.
They have made some big gains.
Andrew Little has restored order to their Caucus, and by all accounts, Nigel Haworth and Andrew Kirton are getting the party's house in order.
Phil Twyford has dominated the housing debate; Annette King has kept Jonathan Coleman on the rails, and Grant Robertson's Commission for the Future of Work has produced some useful ideas.
But the Caucus still has too many low-profile performers --- though some claim that's because the Leader has some MPs he's not keen to hear from.
But outside the Caucus and among former MPs and on the moderate left wing of politics there are concerns that Labour is not yet ready for power.
And those concerns go to the heart of what the party stands for and why it is in politics.
The concerns have been voiced at two recent Fabian Society forums.
Last weekend, a forum in Auckland looking back at the Clark Government and “starring” Michael Cullen, Margaret Wilson and David Parker produced some fascinating observations both on the Clark Government and the Little Opposition..
You had to read between the lines to understand what they were saying.
Cullen defended the relative conservatism of the Clark Government.
He described Clark as a “democratic centralist with perhaps the emphasis more on the second word than the first.”
He argues that one of the failures of the Clark Government was that it did not address the major issue of how to change the nature of capitalism.
“That means how to address those pillars of the current consensus on the nature of capitalism such as short-term shareholder value enhancing etc. etc. to a positive relationship between the citizen and the state; a positive relationship between business and all its stakeholders not simply its shareholder stakeholders,” he said.
“We have to build a model of social democracy which is relevant for New Zealand for the 21st-century and that is quite a challenge.
“I don’t think we are at that point yet.
“I don’t think I see the kind of language which would enable us to say to young people that we understand the way they think and the kind of society they want to create.”
His theme was picked up by the former Party President, Cabinet Minister and Speaker, Margaret Wilson.
She said the current Government pursued a policy of “denial followed by incremental change, the pothole approach to policy.
“This demonstrates that they have no answers to the global changes taking place financially, economically or socially,” she said.
“They appear to have no Plan B.
“The question is however, does the Opposition and in particular Labour, have a policy that reflects a renewal of the social-democratic agenda.
“Can we fulfil our historic role which seems to be to face the future and prepare the country for it?”
Wilson did not answer her question but the fact that she didn't, said it all.
And three weeks ago in front of the Fabians in Wellington, the left wing economist Brian Easton, argued that Labour had done little to roll back neo liberalism.
“Its characteristic criticism of the Government is to say that were they in government they would run the existing system better.
“It is rare for the Labour Opposition to set out a leadership position suggesting that the current system is not working properly and needs substantial change.
“Leadership has been sadly lacking.”
These are all substantial criticism of Labour from people who have real credibility within the Labour “tribe”.
Their arguments are not about personalities, but are about a fundamental narrative which they believe is missing from the way the party in Parliament presents itself.
Andrew Little has used the phrase “kiwi dream” to describe aspirations for housing and jobs and social services.
But measured against the the Fabian speeches that seems little more than a catch phrase rather than a political philosophy.