The Labour Party entered this election year in a better state than any year since the post-Helen period post-2008, but now struggles to gain consistent traction in opinion polls and has some left commentators already headed for the lifeboats. Part of this is due to with the popularity and political adeptness of John Key. Many argue it’s all David Cunliffe’s fault, same as Phil Goff and David Shearer before him. Yet, leadership is only part of the problem and at heart is more of a Labour problem. What prevents Labour from reaching it’s full potential so far is that it is still haunted by two ghosts: Roger Douglas and Helen Clark. Exorcising these ghosts will be decisive this year and beyond.

The ghost of Roger Douglas emanates from the economic reforms enacted by the Fourth Labour Government of 1984 to 1990. New Zealand was transformed from a protectionist welfare state to the deregulated free market state of today. As a consequence, Labour destroyed itself. The party membership decline from about 50,000 in 1980 to about 7,000 in 1990 and the split to Jim Anderton’s New Labour Party helped keep Labour from office until1999.

The ghost of Helen Clark is that her personality and style literally held the party together from 1993 to 2008 to the point it has not been able to move on. Helen reunited Labour through both public repudiation of the depth and speed of Rogernomics and the inclusion of Rogernomes such as Phil Goff and Annette King in high-ranking positions. This was solidified by her top-down management style that ensured unity.

Helen’s ascendency coincided with the global rise of the Third Way philosophy of modern social democracy: the acceptance of the key tenets of neoliberal economics. The worldwide centre left – most notably Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schroeder, and Helen – espoused this as a compromise with neoliberalism. Yet, this approach broadly failed to address growing income inequality, cartel pricing of food and amenities, and support of global trade agreements that undermined national sovereignty and their natural blue collar support base. Without the discussion of economics and class from a left wing perspective, the centre-left globally was ill-equipped to address the looming Global Financial Crisis.

Helen’s top-down management style also enabled a party culture that hampered new ideas. In a previous post, I touched on my experiences as a Young Labour member attending national conference in Christchurch in 2003. Meeting Young Labour members, I was impressed with their dedication and politics further to the left than I expected. Yet as a group, especially from the executive, there was an emphasis on loyalty as more important than healthy debate. Political aspirations meant not pissing off important people. This made Labour bereft of new ideas.

After Helen’s retirement in 2008, Goff, Shearer, and so far Cunliffe have been unable to achieve unity. The 2011 party list rankings that entrenched incumbents and promoted lacklustre talent up the rankings was the result of the top down emphasis on loyalty. Under the leadership of Goff and King, both former Rogernomes, Labour developed a weak policy narrative that failed to address structural inequalities. Though flagship policies on capital gains tax, opposition to state asset sales, a higher minimum wage, and more apprenticeships were each smart, but didn’t address root causes of inequality, didn’t express a distinctly left wing narrative, nor outwardly made enough of a difference in peoples lives. Shearer and Cunliffe so far have introduced more of the same: NZ Power, Kiwi Assure, and the Sure Start Package. Technocratic and substantive, but not enough to speak to peoples needs.

Most critics blame leadership, but a real solution begins with a coherent alternative centre-left platform for the post-Global Financial Crisis age. So far, this has alluded the global centre-left for two reasons. Firstly, it has not developed an easy-to-understand left narrative of the GFC. Secondly, it hasn’t answered the failures of neoliberalism, especially the neoliberal ownership of the word ‘freedom’ – which really means exchange. Thirdly, the ghosts loom large. Like UK Labour with Blair and Brown and now Australian Labor under Kevin and Julia, NZ Labour needs an exorcism.

The last centre-left government in New Zealand who achieved both pragmatic, transformative change and balanced economic and social priorities was Norman Kirk’s Third Labour Government of 1972-1974 and Bill Rowling until 1975. Kirk and Rowling’s successes were based on a civic notion of what government could do well through policies that ordinary people could understand and feel. Within three years, they introduced reforms entrenched in NZ politics: ACC, the Domestic Purposes Benefit, the New Zealand Superannuantion Fund (repealed by Muldoon and revived as KiwiSaver), the Waitangi Tribunal, protested nuclear testing in French Polynesia, and cancelled a Springbok tour of New Zealand. These policies were vindicated by history and endure today.

Six months is a short timeframe to develop this vision, but perhaps Labour – through leadership, caucus, and the Policy Council – has already considered a different approach. Labour has already signaled changes to core neoliberal tenets such as corporate cartel pricing and Reserve Bank inflation policy, but this needs to be weaved into a larger, more passionate vision. One that cannot be as bureaucratic, protectionist, and top as before 1984, but one that understands modern concerns.

One part of that vision could emphasise Kirk’s approach of what government does best.

This means both a narrative of civic values and individual empowerment of individual opportunity – regionally and nationally – with community and individual as interdependent. Regionally, this could be as simple as the expansion or establishment of regional colleges, polytechs, and institutes to provide high quality degrees and diplomas specific to regional industries and employment pathways for graduates, and revitalise regions. Nationally, the expansion of faster passenger rail networks could be sold as a way to connect communities, relieve growth and housing pressure in big cities, and encourage growth in satellite towns and regions. This could be started with priority to Auckland to Hamilton, Tauranga, and Whangarei.

Youth employment opportunities could be similarly expressed as a national and local concern with both a national and local solution. A voluntary National Service akin to Americorps could recruit high school and university graduates as conservation workers, teachers aides, or nurses aides as a pathway to employment and education, assist frontline staff, and address skills shortages. If the National Government made an agreement with McDonalds to recruit the unemployed through WINZ, Labour could address national and local needs for the public good. It could be dollar for dollar employment experience in charities for new graduates for periods of six months.

Another part of this vision could be to update traditional left wing concerns to provide contemporary answers to neoliberalism and freedom.

Industrial relations policy can incorporate modern concerns. Focus on unpaid corporate internships; temp, contract, and subcontract labour rights, and encourage a more grassroots, democratic union movement. Class has not disappeared, more or less relocated to call centres, retail, hospitality, and casual employment. Start there.

Housing policies could take from Labour’s historic urban planning ideas and articulate a left wing vision of community. Invest in social housing and state housing with the principle of freedom of people should be able to live near where they work rather than be forced further out by high housing prices. Develop new urban planning models that favour good design, architecture, green space, and affordability. Surely Labour could address food prices through more suitable, local means. Perhaps legislation and local collaboration to establish consumer cooperatives and farmers markets for cheaper food prices.

Education could arguably be Labour’s best opportunity to articulate a new vision that would contrast heavily to the bureaucratic speak of Hekia Parata. Labour could emphasise community control of schools and real freedom of opportunity for all students. Funding control could be decentralised with greater parent and teacher roles in school management and a holistic approach to education, rather than remain dependent on ideologically-driven education models and bureaucratic accountability measures. Connect education to housing, nutrition, health, and parental and student employment opportunities.

Cunliffe can learn from Kirk in terms of policy and vision, but cannot copy Kirk’s personal style. Cunliffe will never be the working class man who left school early and built his own house. The public and media already sees Key as the closest thing. Instead, Cunliffe could take cues more from Helen. Helen remained publicly unpopular with the image of a cold, childless, opera-loving academic in excess tweed. Better leadership and success in the 1996 election debates helped Helen rehabilitate her from a possible third place finish to being a respected leader. People loved Helen because she was a good manager. Cunliffe has been talked of as a Helen protege and preferred successor and that is true insofar as he could cultivate the image of smartest person in the room and the policy wonk. Though the degree of her top down approach could be detrimental, he could take some cues from Helen to address key organisational concerns: entrenched incumbency and lack of renewal, poor communications operations and messaging, and Shane Jones. Either Jones’s contradiction of party policy has implicit backing or is uncontrolled, it’s looking like the latter and makes Cunliffe look weak.

The centre-left cannot move on without a coherent alternative, especially to the neoliberal concept of freedom and modern expression of what it means to be left that people can understand and feel. This is crucial to exorcising the ghosts of the past. Party disunity is partly indicative of a lack of vision. When Labour knows what it stands for and can articulate a people-centred vision, will it be in a position to challenge National.


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