Labour: a party in transition – but to what?

Phil Goff is a baby-boomer. He is a quintessential member of what has been called the educational meritocracy. And, though you might be forgiven for wondering after all the media coups, he is leader of the Labour party.

All three dimensions are part of Labour’s challenge and opportunity as it adjusts to the 2010s. Forget poor Darren Hughes and grumpy 2008 losers Judith Tizard and Damien O’Connor. The frissons around them say much less about Goff and Labour than about National agents’ and hard-left non-Labour elements’ twitterings, bloggings, poll manipulations and rumour-fuelling.

Those stuff-Goff plays got mainstream media traction in part because of a need to cover all bets, in part because Labour is heading for a second term in opposition, in part because Goff can’t pull voters against super-popular nice-guy John Key (who could?) and in part because injudicious indiscretions by some Labour MPs gave coup talk a patina of credence.

It is highly unlikely Labour will dump Goff before the election. The only reason it might is if enough MPs conclude that disaster looms and that another leader would lose less badly — shades of Labour’s panic over Sir Geoffrey Palmer in 1990.

This highlights Labour’s grim 2011 election task: to stop its vote going down in November and instead push its vote up.

Labour faces the same problem Bill English (too eager to take the poisoned pill in late 2001) faced in 2002: that voters conclude in large numbers that the incumbent government will be re-elected and a small party might have more capacity to restrain it than the official, powerless opposition. United Future was such an alternative in 2002 and did slightly moderate Helen Clark’s post-2002 governments.

This year the only vehicle on the grid (so far) is New Zealand First but it has limited capacity to restrain National because Key has ruled out dealing with it. In any case for it to get 5 per cent is still a big if.

Then note that Labour squeezed back in 2005 because it frightened its once-core low-socioeconomic vote out in Auckland but that in 2008 a lot of that vote stayed home. The fact that in the Auckland mayoral election and in the Botany by-election Labour got those voters out again suggests that even with Goff Labour might avoid a downgrade in November.

If so, the only rational argument to dump him pre-election would be if someone else would do much better. No one yet argues that any of the many touted in the blogosphere is a 38-40 per cent 2011 leader.

That takes us to 2014.

Put up your nominees for leader. Then ask if any of them fits the need for Labour to be convincingly relevant in 2020-23, not just 2014.

That is a core question, not just for Labour but for centre-left parties in Australia (where Labor is in a mess), Britain (where Labour was trounced), the United States (where the new energy came last year from the maverick right) and bits of Europe.

One ingredient is the need to reflect and give voice to the aspirations, values, prejudices and demands of the rising generations, who expect a more diversified society and, consequently, state.

That requires a candidate lineup that looks ahead. Labour did that in the 2008 election and this time has continued modestly on that path (with maybe more to come if Parekura Horomia hands on the Ikaroa-Rawhiti electorate.)

It points also to a generation-X leader — someone like Grant Robertson, though probably after a second transitional leader (in which case watch who gets to be deputy).

A second ingredient is the decline and dispersal of the old Labour/Social Democrat/United States Democrat constituency: organised wage workers. Centre-left parties must now pitch to diverse constituencies. Conservative parties have long been better at that. Centre-left parties have settled for coalitions of activists such as feminists, gays and ethnic minorities who are not at one with today’s mostly non-unionised wage-worker families.

A third ingredient is the new class system. Goff climbed out of the lower socioeconomic order on merit thanks to a good, free, tertiary education. While there are younger-generation Labour MPs of that ilk, the emergence of the educational meritocracy is essentially a feature of the rise of the baby-boomer.

Now look around: baby-boomer educational meritocrats’ children — and, now, grandchildren — get a flying start on a good education and thus better chances in life.

This amounts a new version of inheritance — in essence a new class system. Labour’s notables, as much as National’s, are part of the privileged class in that system.

So is Labour integrated, organically one-of-us with lower socioeconomic people or is its representation of them an intellectual or emotional construct, a new paternalism? How, in short, can Labour’s MPs reach across the class divide and stay relevant on both sides of that divide?

Don’t look for a quick answer. But until there is an answer, expect more centre-right-led governments than centre-left-led ones.