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OPINIONPoliticsOctober 30, 2023

Labour’s next big task is finding its policy again

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

What happens when you run for re-election without a concrete programme promising real political change? Labour just found out, writes Max Rashbrooke.

“In politics the middle way is none at all.” John Adams, the second president of the United States, made this argument all the way back in 1776, and the New Zealand Labour Party has recently given it proof. Having, at the election, shorn its platform of most of its distinctively progressive elements, the party was left with a middle-of-the-road manifesto that convinced neither core supporters nor swing voters.

Labour’s woes are, though, just one example of a wider malaise facing political parties the world over, especially on the left. It is almost a cliché in some circles to talk of the “interregnum”, but that is where political parties find themselves: in a world where neoliberalism, however defined, is near-dead, but no coherent political platform has emerged to replace it. 

Nor is there a new intellectual figurehead. The Marxists, famously, had Marx, the Keynesians had Keynes, and the post-1960s “New Right” had Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. Today there is no one thinker to whom politicians can turn for easy answers or a pre-packaged manifesto. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing: a single source of inspiration can very easily become a single point of failure, an intellectual monoculture. In its absence, though, the task of political manifesto-building becomes even harder.

But ideas aren’t all that matter in politics. Just as athletes overvalue strength, and economists over-emphasise financial incentives, political commentators probably exaggerate ideology’s impact. Plenty of good deeds can be driven by basic motives such as a desire to help the vulnerable. But without a clear compass, political parties struggle to understand the exact difficulties a nation faces, select the most promising solutions and, above all, communicate to the public a coherent vision of the path ahead.

Past Labour administrations have generally done just that. Even Helen Clark’s fifth Labour government, modest in its ambitions compared to some of its predecessors, was clear about its plans. Indeed it printed those plans on a piece of paper – 1999’s famous “pledge card” – and distributed them to every household in the land.

Prime minister elect Helen Clark arrives at the Avondale Racing Club on election night 1999. (Photo: Ross Setford/Getty Images)

Behind those detailed pledges was a concrete programme of political change. Following the “Third Way”, as it was internationally known, Clark pledged to retain a largely “free market” approach but soften its edges. Working for Family tax credits, for instance, would smooth out some income disparities – but the economic power of businesses would not really be challenged.

Clark’s National successors – John Key, Bill English and now Christopher Luxon – have taken a similar line, arguing with remorseless clarity that we first need to grow the economy and then we can all enjoy the health and education services we desire. Discerning an Ardernist or Hipkinite credo would, however, be hard work. The much-touted “kindness” was a worthwhile value but hardly a political programme. Laudable but scattered initiatives like extending sick leave similarly failed to add up to anything coherent. The latest pledge card was overly long, unmemorable, and little-noticed by the public.

Jacinda Ardern speaks to Labour’s election party at Auckland Town Hall, October 17, 2020. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The size of Labour’s 2020 victory has almost erased from our collective memory the fact that, in the last poll before Covid arrived, National was ahead and, in conjunction with Act, set to win the election. There was never a strong majority for Labour’s programme – even assuming one could make it out.

Economists like to talk about revealed preferences: the things that, by our actions and purchases, we show we value, as opposed to the things that, in conversations and surveys, we say we value. The last Labour government was very much a revealed-preference government. Ahead of time, its priorities were hard to discern, and it was only when it really dug in on something, such as Three Waters, that people could say, “Oh, so that is a priority. Who knew?”

Speaking of preferences: for the last three years, the left has constantly bewailed Labour’s failure to make use of its extraordinary and absolute majority, claiming that the party squandered a “mandate” for sweeping change. But for what, precisely, did Labour have a mandate? Its 2020 manifesto, presumably – but that document is notably banal. Thrown together amid the Covid chaos, its contents were – I was once told by someone at the heart of that process – essentially just the policies that were so uncontentious within the party that they could be put down on the page without fuss.

Some commentators have claimed that, following the triumph of the initial pandemic response, Labour had a mandate for a kind of activist government not seen since the 1970s. I once argued something of the sort; even National’s pollster, David Farrar, felt New Zealanders had rediscovered their love of the active state. I now wonder if Labour had a mandate for something rather different: competence. 

The initial pandemic response was nothing if not impressively competent: comparatively few people died, and the post-lockdown economy rebounded at pace. The public liked that, and wanted more competent delivery of policies, whatever they might be. (This, as I have noted, is sometimes called valence voting.) The less successful sequel to those events, as is now well-hashed out, saw Labour’s reputation for competence erode rapidly, owing to the much-discussed slowness of the vaccine rollout and, of course, its failure to deliver on key promises, especially anything complex and infrastructure-related like Auckland light rail.

A favourite saying of Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, is this: “Only when the tide goes out do you learn who has been swimming naked.” Labour’s 2020 Covid-inspired victory was like an immense tide running in, and as it has swept out, the bare backside of the party’s intellectual platform has been cruelly exposed.

In fairness to Labour, leftwing parties all around the world are – as above – struggling in the vacuum of the interregnum. Its British counterpart, for instance, is soaring in the polls, but hews ever-closer to the centre. Its “small target” strategy speaks to a desire to neutralise Conservative attacks rather than any great confidence in a bold new political vision. 

Hewing ever-closer to the centre: UK Labour leader Keir Starmer, photographed in 2020. (Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Across the Atlantic, “Bidenomics” is reinvigorating industrial policy, lifting working-class incomes and driving action on climate change – but could well be unseated by a second Trump presidency and has not shifted the dial on ingrained issues like shortfalls in healthcare coverage, police brutality and child poverty. In Australia, Anthony Albanese won power for Labor by explicitly running on a less ambitious programme than his predecessor, Bill Shorten. In Europe, many (though not all) left-wing political parties face similar struggles. (The left is, admittedly, triumphant in much of Latin America, but in situations and political set-ups very different to those which operate in New Zealand.)

None of which is to say that Labour’s time in office has been fruitless. The Zero Carbon Act, albeit largely the work of Greens co-leader James Shaw, has shifted the climate debate forever. But many successes have been achieved sotto voce. Labour put $16bn extra into the welfare system, sharply reducing the number of children going hungry and restoring dignity to beneficiaries’ lives. But it hardly trumpeted this policy, perhaps fearing what would happen if the middle classes found out how much extra money the poor were getting. (In contrast, Bill English raised benefits exactly once, in 2015, and you never heard the end of it.) And although the strategy of incremental, under-the-radar change worked well enough in the benefits system, it abruptly hit a brick wall when it came to co-governance, another policy that Labour didn’t particularly want to defend.

Chris Hipkins in February 2023, around the time he announced the first stage of his purge of previous Labour policy. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty)

On election night I stopped by the Labour function in Lower Hutt – “party” would be entirely the wrong word, given the generally graveyard-like mood – to hear the immediate postmortems. Perhaps the most perspicacious comment was that although the “policy bonfire” had been a smart move, a sloughing-off of controversial policies often tangential to the party’s mission, the subsequent problem was the failure to replace the torched plans with something better, or indeed anything much at all.

Figuring out what fills the void is the task now facing Labour. As the philosopher G. A. Cohen once said, the job of political parties is to constantly return to their eternal values, and apply them to the present moment. Deceptively simple in theory, but hard in practice. For Labour, those values must surely include old standbys of economic security, solidarity, egalitarianism, and positive liberty – that is, the freedom to achieve one’s goals with the support of others – as well as the newer commitment to respecting the environment.

The nature and value of work will likely be central, too, given that it is literally in the party’s name. That might imply meaningful policy on the colossal modern issue of insecure work, and a greater emphasis on just transitions, as a way to ensure that climate-change-induced economic restructuring does not harm the most vulnerable. But whatever happens, any inquest into Labour’s failure will need to go further than National’s own post-2020 equivalent, which improved matters tactically but also produced “Labour Lite” as far as policy is concerned.

The political analyst Colin James likes to point out that big change in New Zealand comes every 40-50 years: the Liberals creating a skeleton welfare state in the 1890s, the first Labour government fleshing that out in the 1930s and 40s, and the fourth Labour government undoing much of that in the 1980s. On that view, 2017 might have been too soon for radical change; the seismic policy shifts may lie ahead. But if Labour is to lead that charge, it will need, like any successful party, to re-establish its core programme – and stick to it. And that is no small task.

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