Labour's task: out of the margins, into the middle

Bill English has been sounding as if he is sorry for Labour: he angers iwi by lobbing section 9 of the State-owned Enterprises Act on to the asset selldown embers; he says the size of the selldowns loot is a “guess”.
The section 9 hoo-ha was so unnecessary that it seems almost like a manoeuvre to give the Maori party’s patchy profile a lift with a pretend win and/or a pretext to go round iwi rohe pitching the investment opportunity.

Carrying into the mixed model law the instruction to the Crown not to transgress the Treaty of Waitangi would not affect the sale price. Prospective investors will quickly find out that even Contact has had to deal with iwi over geothermal access and there is an iwi-Crown co-management regime for the Waikato River. Section 9 will be in the new law in effect if not in words.

English’s “guess” (actually avoiding stating a price) underlines that the value of the selldowns lies not in debt or schools and dams but as a source of steady dividends for baby-boomers needing a liveable income from nest-eggs since Alan Bollard and foreign investors drove down government bond returns. The efficiency gain is likely to be marginal and capital raising is constrained by the government’s need to keep 51 per cent.

All this is small comfort for Labour, which focused on the selldowns in the election to scant effect.

That line was negative. In fact, negativity dominated Labour’s campaign, making the party sound like a cantankerous teenager, not a striding adult. Its big positive policies, not least its child-centred social policy initiative, were not pushed while it fixated futilely on claiming to match National’s fiscal line.

The challenge now for David Shearer and Labour is to go positive.

The light reason for that is that Shearer doesn’t have the bite to make negativity work but does have a strong personal leadership story to tell, in his past international work and his earnest decency.

If he spends 2012 travelling the country letting that story reach people he might gradually gain acceptance, even with his low charisma. If he tries to play attack dog, to which David Cunliffe is much more suited, English and mates — and voters — will scarcely notice.

The heavier reason for Labour to go positive is that there is a big game on: to devise policies that highlight opportunity (not “problem”) at a time when middling people are under pressure from the relocation of manufacturing, new technology and the upward income transfer to financiers, professionals and top executives.

In the United States and Europe this has found a small voice on the radical left but a much bigger voice on the right in the Tea Party and populist parties. Social democratic parties have not found the words and policies to offer deliverance to the beleaguered middle.

Here National and Winston Peters (whose appeal now goes wider than to “oldies) have more to say to those people than Labour. The Engineers Union’s comparatively well-paid members are as likely to find common cause with National’s policies as with Labour’s. Labour has over the past 40 years become the party of the margins: the very-low-paid, Polynesian commoners, the disabled, gays, feminists.

Most of these are atomised, much as the potential vote for a Labour-type party was in 1890, and thus much harder to lock into a voting force the way unions organised Labour’s vote in its heyday.

In fact, Labour activists come less from the atomised low-socioeconomic segment than from the educational meritocracy, which arose from the opening of tertiary education in the 1960s and now forms a privileged self-perpetuating class. The children and grandchildren of educational meritocrats have been far more likely to go to higher education than the progeny of those outside the educated elite.

Thus the bulk of what should be Labour’s logical support base is outside the meritocracy but most of its activists are inside it. Those activists have to reach across a class divide — and over the beleaguered middle.

Reaching that middle requires a deep rethink of policy and organisation. Shearer’s real task is less to scratch together a win in 2014 than to start that rethink. Applying 1930s or 1970s thinking to the 2010s will leave Labour offside.

It will, of course, win office from time to time. But in 2014 or 2017 that will be highly likely to require the Greens. There is now a short, tight hyphen between the two parties. Whether they like it or not they are now a coalition — in effect if not in fact.

On the Green side that means a sophisticated and realpolitik approach to policy and government, as Metiria Turei almost indicated on Sunday: less democracy, more leadership, tough choices.

On Labour’s side it requires a determined effort to make Labour-Green look like a government in waiting that can work term after term — and gather in a large chunk of the middle. That is Shearer’s and environment spokesman and deputy leader Grant Robertson’s job.

Any guesses on the chance of success?