Labour's challenge: to project a Labour vision

Imagine you are 24 and Labour. What do you most want of your party and government? Not lower student fees; you are past that. Not revolution or radicalism; that’s for the failed Alliance. A creed, a “project”.

Now imagine you are a 50-something cabinet minister. You will listen respectfully to Helen Clark’s dull annual Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament today, pleased she has settled the country down, is making your sorts of changes at the margin and runs a popular and commanding government. But is that what fired you up in the 1970s?

Did you come into Parliament in the cause of “economic transformation” or a “growth and innovation framework”, the centrepieces of the 2001 and 2002 Prime Minister’s statements? Do you wiggle your toes in delight at balanced budgets and Michael Cullen’s superannuation sinking fund? Was last year’s business-as-usual election as exciting as it gets — the bland leading the bland, an incremental government and a well-fed populace?

Will that do in 2005 and 2008? Will it cement Labour as the usual party of government?

No, say some well-placed insiders. No, say some ministers. No, said 30 or 40 Labourites, including a sprinkling of MPs and ministers, at a two-day “summer school” at Riversdale two weekends back.

OK, there’s the no. Where’s the yes?

A short paper by a Scottish Labour MP, David Miliband, has been circulating among the Labour intelligentsia. It has had a stimulatory effect, including on a senior minister or two and, I am told, even on Heather Simpson, Clark’s most intimate and influential adviser.

Miliband reckons Tony Blair’s Labour government has “overperformed on most of its formal targets”. But this “ticking boxes” is not enough. “Themes, not policies, win elections… Themes without policies lack substance but policies on their own are arid”. In any case, adds Fabian Society secretary Michael Jacobs, in another circulating paper, policies often take a long time to work and are little understood by voters.

The famous Blair “third way”, says Miliband, despite its worldwide influence on once-socialist parties, is “defined negatively “. To turn Labour into “an all-pervasive political movement”, the party must:

* develop “civic and social institutions that provide opportunity and security for all” and become known for those institutions,

* build a machine capable of winning not just elections but “campaigns” (for example, for accessible health care) that “anticipate changes in the economy and society”,

* strengthen local government and

* be “alive to the politics of insecurity” arising from the “economy, crime, public services, finance, identity and foreign policy” (or the right will exploit them) — to which you might add for this country, the Treaty.

And, Miliband says, Labour people “need to ensure our values drive our politics” and establish “clear goals” based on those values. “Ideas are more important than ever.” Jacobs insists in addition that those values must be anchored in a clearly articulated philosophy, incorporating a “vision of a better society”. Values alone do not provide a clear sense of purpose and direction, he says — “they sound too vacuous”.

This is challenging stuff for the careful government in Wellington. Clark and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen have shied away from visions and proclamations of philosophy. Attempts to engage them in that sort of conversation don’t often get far.

Clark’s and Cullen’s government has been one of policies — pragmatic, centrist with a leftish lean but with no “project”, as social democrats call philosophy and vision.

But something stirred at last week’s two-day caucus retreat. There was a lengthy and thoughtful discussion of what marks Labour as different, now that it has largely made its “correction” to the 1990s policies.

Even Cullen is said to be among those who contributed positively and in depth to the discussion, though he wouldn’t talk about it even off the record afterwards. Nor would he talk about what several ministers told me was a brilliant intervention by him in a long discussion of Treaty matters at the caucus retreat, winning general agreement that article 2 is the only contentious one. He is said to be keen to put pegs in that increasingly slippery ground.

So are we about to see some grand vision statement to fire up the 24-year-olds and re-fire the 50-somethings?

No, says one in favour of doing that. It is not in this government’s nature. “Third way” caution runs deep.

But look to the 2004 Budget, by which time ministers will, if the economy runs true, feel more confident they have the funds to expand some programmes dear to Labour party, union, social and feminist activists. It has been hinting at this for some time now.

Couple that with a gradual infusion into ministerial speeches of “values” and “philosophy” this year and next, so that it seeps into the political language.

Nothing revolutionary, mind. But maybe inklings of destination. Which would be a change.