Rebasing Labour as a governing party

Phil Goff cooks sausages to a turn on the barbecue. But can he cook up a strategic future for Labour?

Here’s Labour’s record for the five decades years since the end of 1959: in government 19 years, out of government 31 years. Its best five decades were 1929-79, when it had 20 years in government, its worst just 12 in 1949-99. Of the 60 years since 1949 it has held office for 21 — one in three.

And National won in 2008 with 6 per cent more of the vote than Labour won in 1999. That is not a good augury for a fast return to office for Labour.

If you were not really blue and not really red, just wanting a career in parliamentary politics, your better bet by far, measured by time spent in office, would be National.

Yet in elections from 1959 to 2009 Labour’s vote-share average was microscopically more than National’s. Even if you put into the calculation the electorate vote share of 31 per cent in National’s 2002 disaster instead of the party vote share of 21 per cent, National led by only half a per cent.

National is better at converting votes into office, even allowing that FPP denied Labour wins in 1978 and 1981 when it got more votes.

Right now Labour’s 14 new MPs face probably five more years and possibly eight preparing for, but not exercising, power.

Making policies that lie fallow in the opposition caucus room is not politics’ most rewarding job. Even skewering Anne Tolley for having part of her portfolio removed is momentary pleasure. Labour has to work out how to be in office far more than a third of the next 60 years.

That complicates the immediate job of getting noticed and running credibly and competitively in 2011. Goff has both to do the 2011 job and build policy and voter platforms for a long-lasting next Labour government.

His big positioning speech on Thursday was more the first than the second, scratching some populist itches. But he did make a stab at the second by pitching Labour as for “the many” and National and the Maori party as for “the few”. Reflecting his wage-worker origins, he sharpened the focus on to “people who are prepared to do the work” and blackguarded rich and poor bludgers who rip off honest toilers. He backed state action to ensure a “community where every person has the opportunity to flourish and make the most of their lives”.

The question now is: can Labour under Goff build that into a foundation for long-term power?

There are two choices: skilful moment-to-moment managerial politics (National’s usual approach) and faith in MMP mathematics; or build a principle-based policy line that locks in a strong voter base.

In 1920 and 1960 wage workers were that base. Unions were the musterers. But in 1975 Sir Robert Muldoon siphoned off many into his “Robsmob”, in the 1990s Winston Peters and Jim Anderton took short-term leases and in the 2000s Helen Clark offended many with “political correctness”.

Labour under the baby-boomer educational meritocrats who ran the 2000s cabinets extended the underdog notion embedded in championing wage workers’ cause to apply to other disadvantaged groups: women, gays, Maori, ethnic minorities.

This is loosely known as “identity” politics. It works if there are enough “identity” groups and they form common cause — and if a large pool of “mainstream” voters form common cause with those groups.

Will that work in 2020? Or does Labour need new coalitions?

A complication is Labour’s link with Maori. At Ratana on Sunday Goff offered history and criticism of the government but no future.

Labour’s Ratana alliance is all but gone after Peters’ raid in 1996 and the Maori party’s in 2005 and 2008.

Moreover, John Key is cultivating the peak iwi leadership group and other iwi leaders and pitching a new Maori politics around economic assets and development — directly challenging Labour’s “identity” politics connection and indirectly queering its socioeconomic underdog pitch to Maori.

Labour might ask why it backs separate Maori seats if it doesn’t win them and its rival delivers to National votes Labour might otherwise get on socioeconomic grounds.

Some other big questions: tax, where so far Labour has been more ideological than strategic; population policy and the role of migration in nation-building and economic prosperity; living with Asia and particularly China; the meaning of equity, equality and opportunity in an internationally integrated and culturally diverse society; how to deliver “public” services; whether universal superannuation at 65 and “free” healthcare can last; what constitutes “education” in the 2020s.

Labour likely won’t dominate office if it builds incrementally on 1970s-2000s thinking on such questions. Moreover, the questions are mutating. Ask a 30-year-old.

Then imagine that 30-year-old at 80. Will Labour in the next five decades have been in office more than a third of the time? Goff’s job is to start addressing that question. It is the younger, new MPs’ job to fill out the answer. We have yet to hear from them.