SocietyBrought to you by

Look, there goes the Labour Party – sliding towards oblivion

Last week Metro editor-at-large Simon Wilson hosted a Spinoff debate at Auckland’s Ika Seafood Restaurant about the future of the Labour Party. But does the party have a future at all? He’s not convinced.

The Unitary Plan debate in Auckland opened another faultline in the progressive movement, just in case you didn’t have enough to get upset about with all the others: class v identity politics, Labour v Green, internationalist v nationalist, Andrew Little v Gracinda. And what do you think about Jeremy Corbyn?

The faultline ran between proponents of the compact city and old lefties arguing the UP was a neoliberal trick to enrich property developers and already-wealthy homeowners in the leafy suburbs.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 18: Newly appointed Labour leader Andrew Little poses after a press conference at Parliament House on November 18, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. The 2014 New Zealand Labour Party leadership election follows the resignation of leader David Cunliffe on 27 September 2014. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Norman Kirk checks out Andrew Little after being appointed Labour leader (Little, that is). Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Their dispute wasn’t really defined by age, but it was about modernising the progressive cause. The old argument is that when you relax the rules around building and allow more density, you create the conditions for ugly apartment blocks and slums that ruin the quality of life for everyone who has to live in or near them. There might be more homes but the big winners are the developers who make a killing.

That sounds grand, principled, insightful and historically sound. It’s been true in the past, even the quite recent past. In fact, in relation to the UP, it’s sentimental nonsense.

First, a compact city, with good-quality affordable homes clustered densely around a comprehensive and efficient public transport system, is essential for any fast-growing city that wants to offer a decent quality of life to all its citizens.

Grasp that, or you fail a bedrock test for progressives. New urbanism isn’t about creating a hipster fantasy. It’s about making cities fit for purpose for everyone who lives in them. Which is most people in the world.

The task for politicians is to ensure that the rules and guidelines are effective to improve quality of life. More, their task is to empower bright, creative people to make it happen, because those people will do it in much more rewarding ways than can be imagined by most politicians.

The faultline over the UP reveals a deeper issue too. If you oppose something just because you think it will benefit the undeserving – your class enemy and its agents, if you like – you’re not going to be much use to your own side in the modern economy.

Because one way or another, everything benefits the agents of capitalism. If you’re a progressive, or a social democrat, or a socialist, you have to suck that up. The task is not to stop property developers making a buck, even if some of them happen to be “neoliberals”. On the contrary, it’s vital their developments are profitable or they won’t build any more.

The task is to require them to deliver good outcomes for ordinary people. Which is exactly what the Unitary Plan does.

Why hasn’t the Labour Party championed the Unitary Plan? Because the National Party likes it? The Nats like it because they’re pragmatists: they know they need a lot more homes built in Auckland or they will lose the city. But Labour should like it because it gives expression to an exciting, future-focused vision of what the city could be.

But that’s Labour, struggling for purpose in the modern world. Championing the compact city could have been – and still could be – one way to address that.

There’s an underlying shift in all this. In the local body elections just passed, almost every candidate supported the rollout of better public transport. That the idea has so quickly become mainstream is a great progressive victory. Labour supports it, of course. But the impetus for this shift in urban values didn’t come from Labour, and the party has not obviously tried to ride the momentum in order to assume a leading role. Why not?

What is the point of Labour? Is it a twentieth century phenomenon sliding into oblivion in the twenty-first?

If you’re an urban progressive, the Greens look like a more natural home. If you’re worried about modernity in any or all its forms, New Zealand First is ready and waiting. If you’re a Māori activist, you can choose from the Māori Party and the Mana Party.

If you’re working class? Any of the above, isn’t it?

In reality, Labour gets votes from all those groups. That’s a good thing: major parties need broad appeal. But Labour doesn’t always treat it as a good thing. They let the inevitable contradictions of being a broad church undermine them – this is expressed through absurdly frequent leadership battles – rather than becoming a source of strength.

Actually, there is a point to Labour and it’s a really important one. They’re there to win elections. Labour is the main party of opposition and therefore is likely to be the majority party in any centre-left government. So they have to look credible. They have to be credible.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 10: Labour supporters celebrate as leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe officially launches Labour's election campaign at Viaduct Events Centre on August 10, 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand. David Cunliffe will go head to head with current Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key at the general election on 20 September 2014. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Labour election campaign launch in 2o14. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

If they’re not, the whole centre-left suffers. A vote for the Greens is a vote for a Labour-led government. Votes for NZ First and the Maori Party are also votes for the possibility of such a government.

Which leads to Jeremy Corbyn. He’s wildly popular among his supporters: the turnout at Corbyn rallies all over the country has been so extraordinary, it speaks of mass disaffection with the old ways and mass enthusiasm for progressive policies.

But Corbyn is also deeply unpopular with the wider public. Polls suggest Labour would be obliterated if they held an election anytime soon.

Those two things are profoundly contradictory and there’s no bridging the gap. Either you believe radical change has to come, and turning the Labour Party into its vehicle is a splendid way to achieve it; or you believe that the purpose of a major parliamentary party must be to win the next election, and the next, so you can implement reforms in office.

In New Zealand, it’s generally accepted that Labour’s main job right now, working with the Greens, is to win the next election.

But it’s not obvious this view is shared throughout the Labour Party, where many people clearly prefer to have a leader they agree with, or feel is “one of us”, rather than a leader with great electoral appeal.

And that, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of the Labour Party. They don’t understand the importance of personality. They don’t have a leader capable of charm and because they changed the voting rules to get rid of the last one they did have, David Shearer, they don’t have the ready means to get another one. It’s not that they can’t win, but they have made it a lot harder for themselves.

It’s fashionable to say charisma shouldn’t matter, that personality politics is a scourge. That’s such nonsense. There’s a good reason voters want to feel we can like and trust our leaders: our trust commits us to the political process, commits politicians to us and helps give legitimacy to lawmaking. Like it or not it’s the currency of politics, far more than policy. It’s true of John Key today, as it was for David Lange and Michael Joseph Savage before him.

So, what are the prospects for Labour heading into election year? Andrew Little will remain leader so they have to double down on becoming the voice of the future. That’s about policy and articulating a vision. Becoming the champion of the compact city in all its forms – from decent affordable housing to creating a cycling city – is a heaven-sent opportunity.

Will they grasp it? What’s their future if they don’t? On the positive side, there’s only one John Key. When he retires, National will lose its charm advantage. On the negative side, it’s only a matter of time before the Greens find an immensely charismatic leader of their own. When that happens, if Labour hasn’t done the same, they really could be annihilated.

The Spinoff has turned off comments. If you want to have your say on a story, please head to our Facebook or Twitter – or send a letter to the editor (we publish a selection weekly): Thanks!