My memories of the ‘golden years’ of Helen Clark are far less nostalgic than many of my contemporaries. Then, I was perpetually frustrated with unfair economic structures, increasing student debt, and a lack of bold policies. Over three electoral defeats, many left voters – including those who voted other parties – have advocated that the solution to Labour’s woes is that it should adopt their utopian ideals: far-reaching economic reforms, renouncing unaccountable trade agreements, and transformative feminism. Yet, this ignores Labour’s role in politics. The result of Labour’s upcoming leadership election will be meaningless if it can’t replicate the formula of a big tent party that will inevitably disappoint people like myself.
Those who advocate a ‘return’ to radical roots forget that Labour has historically been a pragmatic left party of government. Prior to electoral victory in 1935, Michael Joseph Savage jettisoned policies such as nationalisation of industry and farmland and adopted an internationally mainstream welfare state model. Public works, state housing, universal and cheap education and healthcare, and unemployment benefits were hardly revolutionary for the Great Depression. Left radicalism within Labour under John A. Lee ended when he was expelled and founded the Democratic Labour Party, leaving Labour to remain pragmatic; the party of Fraser, Nash, Kirk, Rowling, and Clark. The exception of Rogernomics distorted this tradition, leaving many nostalgic for a radical Labour government that never truly existed rather than Helen’s reassertion of a tradition approach.
A successful Labour must, like National now, extend beyond inner city and suburban strongholds to the regions. At the high point of 2002, Labour held both Hamilton seats, East Coast, Taupo, Rotorua, Whanganui, Otago, and Invercargill – all lost to National by 2008 and most of which need to be reclaimed.This requires articulating concrete positions on local issues. Napier MP Stuart Nash, the only regional success this year, partly attributed this to focusing on three local issues “the reopening of the rail line to Gisborne, the threat to after-hours services at the local clinic and strong local feeling against amalgamation to form a Hawkes’ Bay “super-city””. This approach would be easily replicated across locations, for example, if Labour were to commit to a 30 year public transport priority build in Auckland.
This approach doesn’t need to ‘win the centre’ but requires an alternative narrative and economic and social policy combination that improves the daily lives of working and middle class voters across different environments. Appearing on the Nation, NZCTU President Helen Kelly cited promises to shop workers in 1935 as examples of understanding of peoples’ experiences: “You’ll have a chair in your shop and you’ll be able to sit down when you’re working, or you won’t have to work more than 50 hours: workers identified with the real problems linked to the real solutions.” People prefer policies they can understand and feel makes a difference to their lives. Ipads in schools had vision but arguably not the biggest priority.
This approach must also accommodate both social liberals and social conservative Labour factions and potential voters under a centre-left banner. The loss of votes to NZ First and National arguably indicates the isolation of centre-left social conservatives from Labour. While John Key could safely balance his support gay marriage within a conservative party, the widespread derision of Labour MP Sua William Sio’s opposition reinforced the notion that social conservatives aren’t welcome. Progressivism cannot be purist checklist akin to a Buzzfeed quiz entitled ‘How Progressive Are You?’, but allows respectfully debate and acknowledges that social conservatives and liberals have the same basic needs.
Left wing voters who want more would be wiser to channel their passions through the Greens or future parties to the left, and civil society. A party promoting truly reformist economic policies and widereaching social change can maximise their party votes to leverage concessions that Labour may be sympathetic to/ not entirely oppose but needs a reason to approve. Case in point: ACT and charter schools. Equally as important for idealists is to participate in civil society organisations and causes to educate and mobilise the public to convince/ pressure parties to commit to more wide-reaching change. Only when the perception of Labour among more radically-minded leftists switches from ‘incompetent’ to ‘unprincipled sellouts’ will things be improving.