Testing David Shearer — and his party

The Labour party is now four years in opposition and two years away from its next bid. Its conference mid-month will be a measure of its transition.

Labour has to do four things: rethink policy; modernise its organisation; demonstrate it is a lead-government-party-in-waiting; and demonstrate it is assembling a government-in-waiting.

After a time in office, a party’s policy initially usually reflects continuity more than rethinking. After 1999 National didn’t re-frame much policy till its second term. Likewise Labour after 2008.

Labour’s challenge now, after five periods in government between 1935 and 2008 when it swung from democratic socialism to neoliberalism to the “third way”, is to revisit first principles and reapply them to modern conditions in such a way that its policies will be relevant into the 2020s.

Tweaking to squeeze into power in 2014 on electoral vagaries would not be a durable governing platform.

The party council wants the conference to be more of a policy forum than over the past decade. Its policy council has begun to formulate a “high-level platform” which it wants MPs bound by.

MPs David Parker and David Cunliffe have been rethinking macroeconomic and microeconomic policy and coming up with significant changes.

They have been freed, and encouraged, to do this by a now-flourishing international debate among economists which challenges the neoliberal and monetarist settings which have been the orthodoxy of the past 30 years. Some of this looks like a return to the “mixed-economy” settings of the mid-twentieth century. Some is searching out new options.

One option is to recast the natural resources versus GDP growth dichotomy as mutual reinforcing and backing clean technology.

Jacinda Ardern has been edging into recasting “social welfare” as “social security”, building on the one inventive policy developed last term but buried at election time last year, the “child-centred” approach. But don’t expect detailed policy until well into next year. And when it comes the test will be whether Ardern injects more resilience into a policy area where Labour people are inclined to settle for feel-good benignity.

In two policy areas which Labour used to regard as its turf, health and education, there is no real evidence of new thinking capable of meeting the radically changed and continually changing skill and fiscal conditions of this decade, let alone the 2020s. National is a lot further into that rethink though it has yet to put it into a coherent frame.

The organisational rethink is further advanced, reshaping the party around regional “hubs”, encouraging registration of “supporters”, including issues activists, who don’t revel in drafty hall meetings, using social media effectively and giving the party membership and its affiliated unions a formal say in who should be leader. It also wants to emulate National’s training for would-be MPs.

The leadership election proposal was test-driven informally in rank-and-file meetings last December in the contest between David Shearer and David Cunliffe. The formal constitutional formula needs to reflect the hard fact that MPs cannot have foisted on them a leader 51 per cent of them don’t want.

That focuses attention on Shearer, for whom the conference is a major, and perhaps decisive, test. Is he on a discernible path to being a prime-minister-in-waiting? That is necessary for the party to be seen as a lead-party-in-waiting.

And that in turn is a prerequisite to Labour looking as if it is leading the formation of a government-in-waiting — as, for example, it did with the Alliance over the 15 months leading up to the 1999 election.

Through the winter and early spring some common ground developed among Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First, including between Russel Norman and Winston Peters, both economic nationalists.

But there are large jealousies among all three. Whether those can be submerged in active cooperation will be the test of whether Labour will have a real hope of governing post-2014. That will be the 2013 conference test.