Hero? Saint? Both? Neither? In making Labour an electable proposition by 2017, Andrew Little faces a challenge of Herculean proportions. Then again, Hercules was presented with twelve impossible tasks. Little can succeed by successfully completing a more modest (but equally daunting) list of five.
AT 1:45PM ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, Andrew Little, became the NZ Labour Party’s 15th leader. Mr Little faces a long and difficult struggle to restore Labour’s fortunes, a struggle that will only end when he has accomplished five Herculean tasks.
1. Rebuilding the relationship between Party and Caucus.
Helen Clark’s 15 year stint as party leader saw Labour’s decision-making processes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. By the end of her reign practically every aspect of policy, and an unhealthy amount of influence over who should (and shouldn’t) be an MP, had become the exclusive preserve of the Leader, her Chief-of-Staff, and a handful of trusted caucus colleagues.
Since her departure, the Labour Party organisation has reclaimed much of the power that Clark wrested from it. In doing so, however, it has alarmed and infuriated many of the caucus’s “Old Guard”. They fear a return to the debilitating floor-fights that beset Labour Party conferences during the 1980s – when the rank-and-file, aided by the union affiliates, fought a bitter rear-guard action against the imposition of the far-right economic policies of Roger Douglas and his cronies.
Mr Little, using his authority as leader, needs to reassure both his caucus colleagues and the wider party organisation that free and frank policy debate is both a necessary and healthy part of political life on the Centre-Left. Any attempt to dragoon caucus members and rank-and-filers into toeing a rigid “party line” should be strenuously resisted.
2. Reaffirming Labour’s Core Beliefs
Labour’s pollster, Stephen Mills, has demonstrated that a clear plurality of New Zealanders believe that the state must continue to play a key role in the provision of such basic public services as health, education and housing; that governments have a duty to intervene in the economy to restore and/or enhance the life-chances of all citizens; and that New Zealand’s taxation system should be fair and progressive.
These are core Labour beliefs and they need to be repeated endlessly, both inside and outside Parliament, with a vehemence equal to the shibboleths of the ruthless, free-market ideology currently dominating New Zealand politics.
3. Shifting the Centre back to Labour.
The feckless fifth of New Zealand voters who refuse to identify themselves as either Left or Right habitually end up backing whichever party articulates its solutions to the country’s problems with the least equivocation and the most force. An effective Leader of the Opposition, by taking the lead and winning the arguments, can shift the ideological centre of gravity in his party’s favour. Conceived of as a coherent philosophical position, the “Centre” is a mirage which leads the insecure political leader far out into the desert – and then abandons him.
4. Learning to sell the unsaleable.
If visitors from the future had told the National or Labour politicians of the 1960s and 70s that in twenty years’ time their respective parties would both be preaching the laissez-faire economic policies of the nineteenth century they'd have laughed in their faces. And yet, by dint of ceaseless proselytising, and the relentless critiquing of their opponent’s policies and performance, the prophets of the “free market” succeeded in persuading a lamentably large number of the voters who’d benefited most from social-democracy that its institutions were broken and in urgent need of replacement.
Even today, as the world struggles to emerge from the Global Financial Crisis, the advocates of neoliberalism continue to insist that only more of the untrammelled greed and recklessness that got us into this mess, can get us out.
Mr Little, in addition to pointing out that the neoliberal emperor has no clothes, needs to demonstrate that Labour’s policy wardrobe is real, fashionable – and fits!
5. Being utterly unafraid of political talent: be it in Caucus or the wider party.
Mr Little must show the electorate that Labour has overcome the most important weakness of the Clark Era: its lamentable lack of succession planning. He must make it clear that, like Napoleon, he expects every Labour foot-soldier to carry a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.
If the public is to recover its faith in Labour as an alternative government, it must be able to see and have confidence in an aggressive and creative shadow cabinet.
Such are the tasks for Labour’s Hercules. Mr Little inherits a big agenda.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 November 2014.