If I had a dollar for every opinion thinkpiece I have ever read about where on the political spectrum the New Zealand Labour Party should position itself, I’d be richer than Croesus. Even richer than Colin Craig’s lawyers.
Much of the recent debate has been sparked by the strong showing of Jeremy Corbyn in UK Labour’s leadership contest. The socialist Corbyn is about a billion miles away from the centrist Blairites who have dominated the party for almost two decades. The prospect of a politician with genuinely held convictions becoming leader is causing panic within the party.
So what, if anything, does Jeremy Corbyn’s success teach us in New Zealand?
What it does do is remind us why Labour exists. Labour must remain committed to achieving a fairer society where everyone can achieve to their potential, regardless of their background or social status, or how much money their parents might have. That means helping the poor and disadvantaged, supporting low-paid workers, and building a strong and resilient economy that allows everyone to participate and be fairly rewarded for their efforts.
That is what we are about, and we cannot let anything distract us from this core mission. If we cannot get this right as a party, then we have no reason to continue in existence. What is the point of seeking power if we have no intention of using it to make our society a better one?
Politics is a contest of ideas, and our party’s leaders must be committed to the cause. They must not be afraid to take positions on difficult or even controversial issues, so long as they remain faithful to core Labour values and beliefs and are clear in how they communicate.
The worst thing we can do as a party is show weakness, uncertainty or indecision. We need to provide the people of New Zealand with a clear alternative to the National Party. We cannot pretend to be something we are not, just to get power. If we are not genuine, then the voters will see right through us and punish us in the polls.
But we also need to be a party for the centre, because that’s where all the votes are. It’s all very well espousing views on issues that may happen to be consistent with core Labour ideals, but we must also be realistic. Some of those ideals might not be particularly fashionable or popular at any given point in time, so there may be occasions where we need to take a pragmatic view and downplay some of our core beliefs.
The polls would suggest that most people are pretty happy with the current government, or are at least not unhappy enough to bother voting for Labour. That tells us that we may need to temper our convictions and ideals with some realism. We need to look at why John Key’s government continues to be popular. Perhaps some of our policies just aren’t attractive to the public. Key’s success has been his ability to convince large sections of the populace that he’s a moderate. Nobody really knows what he stands for or what drives him. He’s a “good guy” who doesn’t seem to have strong beliefs or convictions about anything.
If we want to emulate the success of National under John Key, then we need to move cautiously and slowly, while at the same time being utterly committed to a platform of reform and economic transformation. We must be clear in our minds what we want to achieve, while at the same time always wondering whether we should slow down, always worrying about the next poll result, and never ceasing to worry what they might be saying about us in commercial radio land. We must always remember our historical mission to create a fairer society, but our mantras must always be “one day,” “in the ideal world, yes” and “the time is just not right.”
To win office we must make Labour more relevant to the public, even if that means making Labour largely irrelevant to most of its traditional supporters. We can still hold true to our ideals and core beliefs, so long as we agree not to discuss them anywhere other than the party’s annual conference.
Labour has always been the party of progress, battling against the forces of conservatism, the establishment, incumbency and the status quo. We are a party of change. But genuine and meaningful change requires leadership. It requires leaders who are driven and focused, who believe in something and can inspire others to follow them. Great leaders don’t have to be “good guys,” or even particularly likeable. But they do have to stand for something.
But this sort of leader can also be high risk. They can sometimes go too far, or end up alienating others. We may be better with a steady-as-she-goes-don’t-rock-the-boat leader. Someone sensible and moderate is probably the answer right now. Someone who can appeal to voters who aren’t strongly politically aligned either way. People who aren’t motivated by the things that have traditionally driven us.
Look, moving to the centre isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to mean making some hard decisions. The first hard decision will be to decide not to make any more hard decisions. We must remain utterly committed to making New Zealand a better place, so long as we qualify that commitment with the words “one day,” “eventually,” and “at some point in the distant future.”
Like I said earlier in this piece, we cannot pretend to be something we are not, just to get power. We have to be true to ourselves. So perhaps the answer is to be nothing at all.