Restoring Labour's core role as outsiders' champion

Susan Baragwanath organises the education of teenage mothers seeking a second chance. Christine Fernyhough organises special education for gifted children from low-income homes.

Both are insiders, members of the wealth and power elite. When they arm-wrestle obdurate, rule-bound bureaucrats, they stand a fair chance of winning. Their networks can mobilise considerable human and financial resources. Beware such people. They do good.

The kids they help are outsiders. They and their parents don’t know how to arm-wrestle bureaucrats. Their networks are not powerful. They have to improvise.

Beware such people. They might want to do well.

This alliance between the well-to-do powerful and the impotent poor crosses an important political divide. Baragwanath, for example, was warmly received at New Zealand First’s convention. That party claims to represent those Winston Peters once called “the forgotten people”, damaged and discarded in the rush to a globalised economy and society.

Insiders and outsiders were once easily identified. Bosses, farmers and professionals were insiders, the Establishment. Workers and the unemployed were outsiders.

Labour broadly represented outsiders. National broadly represented insiders.

But National was taken over by a wrong-side-of-the-tracks populist, Sir Robert Muldoon, who pitched his message at and shared a set of values with the “ordinary bloke” in the suburbs. He painted the Labour leadership as an effete elite of intellectuals and social liberals.

You might call them the latte Establishment. Their values were not the ordinary suburbs’ values. Though descended from outsiders, they were a new sort of insider, an educational meritocracy.

After 1984 this new Establishment ripped away protections for suburban jobs, celebrated diversity of cultures and lifestyles and hobnobbed with Maori radicals and big business.

This was not government of the suburbs by the suburbs for the suburbs.

Much the same happened in Australia. John Howard has exploited it to effect. His Liberals are the old Establishment’s party. But he has been gaining among the “battlers” in the suburbs. Labor’s voting base is fraying.

Something similar may be going on in the United States. The Republicans have eaten into the old Democrat outsiders coalition.

Here, however, the picture now is different.

First, the 1990s National-led governments drove on the globalisation which Labour started. That scarred and scared suburban battlers. National cannot (yet) credibly do a Howard.

Second, Helen Clark, though a gold-card member of the latte Establishment, is keenly sensitive to the mood in the suburbs and tacks her policy accordingly. Note, for example, the way she has half-aligned with the United States. Note stiffer sentences.

There is one gap, however, which Peters exploits: cultural insecurity. He validates resistance to alien influences. He validates cultural solidarity. He gives voice to those whom biculturalism and multiculturalism make outsiders.

Once decades ago the Labour party represented those outsiders. White New Zealand was as much a preference of the working class as of the imperialist Establishment. But the latte Establishment celebrates biculturalism and multiculturalism.

Labour has, however, acquired a way out of this cul de sac: its United Future ally. Much of United Future’s preoccupation is with outsiders. If you don’t agree, spend a day at its conference. Moreover, it pushes a population policy which includes rewards (notably income-splitting) for locals who raise children. That could cut the need for immigrants and so ease cultural fears and Peters’ appeal.

United Future also values the outsider-assisting initiatives of people like Baragwanath and Fernyhough. It wants more tax deductibility for those sorts of activities.

Labour tradition is that the state knows and does best and private organisations discriminate. There is some truth in the second but there is also some falsity now in the first.

So the enduring dimension of Labour’s tradition may not be its reverence for the state but its representation of outsiders. If United Future helps Labour restore that to the centre of Labour’s politics, it might have something more to offer Labour than lobby fodder.