Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On Labour’s current rethink of its identity

January 25th, 2012

Labour goes into its two day Taupo retreat today with what has charitably been dubbed a ‘slow and careful journey’ to a new identity under the leadership of David Shearer. Certainly the man himself has laid out a pretty circuitous route to the Treasury benches, which will apparently be via Napier and Timaru :

He acknowledges Labour didn’t do well in provincial parts of New Zealand at the election and he wants that to change. Mr Shearer says he’d like to head to places like Napier, Timaru, and New Plymouth.

According to RNZ, the caucus meeting in Taupo will be discussing the party’s strategies on welfare reform and the retirement age, but no immediate announcements on changes to Labour’s policy stances can be expected, post retreat.

If this is slow and careful to some, it also looks like unsure and tentative to others – and with no change from the former reliance on focus groups and polling before policy positions are taken.

This really isn’t good enough.

New Zealanders cannot afford to wait in line to meet David Shearer, one by one. By taking the slow and tentative approach, Shearer is going to let himself be defined by the parliamentary agenda that begins in early February. In other words, the early perceptions of him will be shaped by his opposing tack to the government’s timetable and agenda, and not through messages of his own devising.

Welfare reform will prove to be as much a test for Labour as the ports of Auckland dispute. Polling will be telling Labour that the public is widely in favour of getting tougher with beneficiary entitlements, while at the same time being just as disturbed by income inequality and child poverty.

Given the state of the job market, cracking down on beneficiaries at this time flies in the face of everything that Labour traditionally represents – yet here, as in Britain, Labour seems very interested in finding a way NOT to oppose welfare reform, while still credibly wringing its hands about the plight of those being dealt to harshly by the Tories.

Cue spin along the lines of : “If we seek greater accountability from those at the top, we must also expect it from those at the bottom too, yada yada …” Instead of defending adult entitlements head on, Labour will try to re-focus the debate as being one about child poverty and jobs. Opposing welfare reform per se will be left to the Greens.

Famously during the holiday break, Trevor Mallard linked on Red Alert to a call to rethink Labour policy on welfare reform, one written for the Guardian by British Labour politician Liam Byrne.

This is no new position by Byrne. Since February of last year for instance, Byrne has been calling for such a change :

Labour will today announce that it is to accept some of the government’s key welfare savings next year, as the shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne declares that reforms need to move at the “very fastest” pace.

In his first major speech since his appointment last month, Byrne will pledge to accept £2.5bn of the planned £3.4bn savings – those parts that are intended to increase incentives to work, and that will spread the making of savings around the overall system. Echoing Tony Blair’s declaration in 2002 that New Labour was “best what our boldest”, Byrne will say that voters in his deprived Birmingham Hodge Hill constituency demand a rapid pace of reform.

“When you look at things from where I stand in Hodge Hill, you have to say we were at our best when we were bold Labour. But while the business of reform might never have stopped, we weren’t driving permanently at top speed.”

In language which may surprise some in Labour circles uneasy at the pace of the coalition’s welfare reforms, he will add: “When you see the wasted potential every day; when you work with the children I serve, then you believe that no other pace of reform but the very fastest will do.”

Get it done, and get it done quickly – and on the whole Labour in Britain supports the bits about creating incentives to work. Will Shearer take the same route?

The first sign he may do so ( or not) will hinge on whether he scraps the extension of tax credits to the beneficiary poor that Labour took into the last election, mainly as a way of defending its flank against the Greens.

Traditionally, Labour has been the champion of the working poor, and not (so much) the beneficiary poor – which was why the Clark government (and Michael Cullen in particular)drew the initial sharp distinction between the needy in employment and the needy on benefits when it fashioned Working for Families.

With the election now over, will Labour back away from this election-bid gambit of support for beneficiaries? Was it always – like the promise to remove GST from fruit and vegetables – just a temporary measure to shore up its left credentials?

Unfortunately, the easy “rethinking” of Labour’s positions almost all appear to entail shifting rightwards from the positions staked out for election purposes. Is this what Shearer and his advisers really plan to do? That would be hard to believe and difficult to stomach for the remaining party faithful – who, surely want him to tack left, not right.

Clearly, we still have a lot to learn yet about David Shearer. If anyone in Napier or Timaru spots him in the coming weeks, please phone home.


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    1. 6 Responses to “On Labour’s current rethink of its identity”

    2. By Matt on Jan 25, 2012 | Reply

      I think you’re being a bit harsh Gordon. First of all, Labour have tried the fast assault with policy bludgeons and it didn’t work. They’d be better off spending a bit of time getting the message right than coming quickly out of the gate with things they’re going to regret later.

      Second, Labour need to look like they’re listening to the people, particularly in the provinces. The perception of Labour is that they’re out of touch and not ready to govern, and Labour can redress that if they look like they’re listening (whether that requires actually listening is another question entirely).

      And lastly, as you indicated, what the people want is contradictory. People want to do something about child poverty and income inequality and they want to come down harshly on beneficiaries. Just as National had to swallow some dead rats they didn’t like (interest free student loans for example), this may be something Labour has to put up with.

    3. By Draco T Bastard on Jan 25, 2012 | Reply

      “Will Shearer take the same route?”

      Of course he will. Labours a centre-right party going even more to the right. They’ll end up being a slightly more liberal National and Act.

    4. By ken on Jan 25, 2012 | Reply

      They’d be better off spending a bit of time getting the message right…… and a lot more time figuring out what they actually believe in?

    5. By Marty on Jan 26, 2012 | Reply

      Gordon you seem to believe that Labour needs to become a milder more socially responsible version of the National Party in order to be electable. You may be right but I hope you are not because then NZ becomes like the USA – both major parties vying for the same vote and each trying to pass each other on the right, as happened in NZ in the 1980s. Will Labour sell out its principles for electoral gain? We shall have to wait and see.

    6. By Joe Blow on Jan 26, 2012 | Reply

      It’s hard to say which way they’ll swing. If they go too far right they’ll lose more punters to the Greens. If they go too far left they’ll lose any hope of retrieving the middle ground swing voters. I’d say they’ll keep battling on as they are. They are a cartel party after all. However, then Key gets to say that Labour hasn’t changed, only its leader’s changed… tough place to be standing for Shearer. I guess working/reskilling for the dole schemes could be a way to tread the fine line with Welfare reform without seeming too left or right… They’d have to be viable schemes however…

      If they drop raising the retirement age as a policy, is that a swing to the left or the right Gordon? Interesting times…

    7. By Leon Henderson on Jan 31, 2012 | Reply

      Insipid, wishy-washy so-called “Labour” (lol) party complete with insipid, wishy-washy, vacillating new “leader” (lol).

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