Labour's challenge: to make post-2014 policy

Don’t look for despondency at the Labour party’s conference this coming weekend. This is not a party in mourning. It is a party sensing opportunity.

In part that is due to the influx of 14 able, mostly younger, MPs, in part due to the clean leadership changeover straight after the election, matched by a quick transition at the top of the party outside Parliament, and in part due to the Mt Albert by-election success.

So there is energy where there might have been despair. Labour realists know they are unlikely to win back power in 2011. But they do think they can win back the 2008 deserters and they are reworking policy after 15 years of Helen Clark’s 1970s-originated thinking.

This policy reworking is at three levels.

One is the Red Alert website, initiated by new MPs at their own expense, where both they and some older MPs air policy ideas along with criticism of the government and invite public comments.

A second level is the caucus committees. Example: David Cunliffe has several groups drawing on people in the party and sympathetic outsiders to revisit economic policy presumptions. He aims to sharpen manifesto policies from late 2010. Second example: Charles Chauvel is working on constitutional issues and helping MPs get bills up.

The third level is the policy council, a mixture of MPs and wider-party nominees chaired by deputy leader Annette King. Its secretary is an irrepressible 31-year-old IT whiz, Jordan Carter. King has encouraged new thinking. So has leader Phil Goff.

Outside the formal party structure are cyber-organised Drinking Liberally discussion groups set up last year.

Add in that the party last year fulfilled Clark’s instruction to select candidates who would form the basis of a sixth Labour-led government. The initial sixth Labour cabinet is in the House now and expect more new MPs — among them 1980s luminary David Caygill’s impressive son, James — in 2011 when more baby-boomer MPs pass on.

Then note that a Labour conference is far more representative of the national socio-ethnic mix than National’s overwhelmingly white, middle-class conference.

All this spells opportunity — to position Labour as a broad-based government of a future New Zealand. That will buoy this weekend’s conference-goers.

But the opportunity is bigger than that. It is to set the post-baby-boom policy frame. Labour’s challenge, starting this weekend, is not just to cobble policy for 2011, which is easily done, but to develop policy which will be modern nine years on from 2014.

That requires fundamental rethinking of the baby-boomers’ line. Labour has yet to show it can meet that bigger challenge.

The dominant policy tone of the past half-century has been civil, moral and economic liberty. Our sorts of societies and economies have been deeply transformed by deregulation. That is the baby-boomers’ legacy.

In the economy this deregulation, accompanied by the increasingly rapid development of a transformational technology — information technology — gave us a bubble-boom, followed, as all such bubble-booms have been in the past, by financial crash. It was also accompanied by a spike in income and wealth inequality, as previous technology-driven bubbles have been.

Some of the most interesting commentary on this is by economist Carlota Perez. She has charted the rise since 1770 of five technologically-driven “surges” from genesis through financial bust to a new production orthodoxy, each 40 to 60 years apart.

Add to this a line of economic thinking which argues that highly unequal societies perform less well economically than comparable societies that are less unequal.

That suggests that the policy approach that facilitated, and was integrated with, the latest technological surge, boom and crash will not be the policy approach best suited to the post-crash settlement. In short, the economic and social libertarian policy revolution is over. What next?

That question is best answered by under-45s — arguably by under-40s. And, arguably, it might logically come from the Labour side of politics, as it did after the last great crash six decades ago.

That is not inevitable. But note, for example, that John Key has appointed pre-baby-boomer Don Brash and baby-boomer Caygill to guide us to wealth parity with Australia. He has reached to the past, not the future, thereby giving some credence to Victoria University academic Jon Johannson’s argument that Key and Bill English are not a new generation of policy leaders but the tail end of the baby-boom — transitional, not transformational.

Of course, the transformational thinkers who generate the post-crash policy revolution are not likely to be found in this country (though note Athens and Edinburgh as small places that produced transformational thinkers). The issue for politicians here is which major party can tune into them and translate their ideas to local conditions.

That is what Labour’s 20-and-30-somethings conferring this weekend might ponder. Those watching from National’s side might, too.