Labour's big (self-)education job ahead

A long shadow will encroach on the Labour party’s pre-election “congress” this weekend: a Green shadow. There will be shorter shadows, too.

The short shadows are a faltering leadership, bad polls and a spectre looming out of history and off the internet. They add up to a growing sense in the electorate that for a second election in a row Labour is not headed for office.

A year ago most MPs agreed David Shearer had to go as leader. Now a broadening number concede that Labour under Shearer would not be doing worse than it is under David Cunliffe.

If Shearer was leader now, there could have been a longshot hope that when voters focused for the first time on this travelled, decent chap in the leadership debates he might click with them. That might happen with Cunliffe — he has charm and plausibility at first meeting — but he has to overcome six months of much-publicised missteps. Labour’s latest four-poll average was 27.5 per cent.

So it will be a downbeat contingent of delegates which huddles out of range of the media in Wellington High School on Friday-Saturday before organisers try to fluff up numbers in the Michael Fowler Centre on Sunday for Cunliffe’s keynote (while also trying not to spend too much, now the campaign purdah period has begun).

And if delegates look out the political window they will see that spectre from history and the internet: ex-Alliance, ex-unionist, ex-Green Laila Harre, heading the Internet bit of Internet-Mana. Harre, who pulled the Alliance out of coalition in 2002, is pitching a “progressive” message to cyber-connected but politically disconnected younger people. If she and her bright offsiders and attractive young candidates succeed, that could add to the Labour-side total — but not to Labour — on September 20.

The larger spectre for Labour’s huddled delegates is the Green party, once a small bunch that could be of help on the left but now turning political adult.

Over the past three elections, for many on the “progressive” side of politics, it has become OK to vote Green. If on September the Greens hold their current 11-12 per cent, or do better, voting Green will go past OK to normal.

If that happens, Labour will struggle to climb above the low-to-mid-30s for an election or three.

To break out it will need one or both of two ingredients. One is an eye-catching, distinctive, celebrity leader (like Matteo Renzi, Italy’s buzzy 40-year-old Prime Minister). The other is a compelling set of “progressive” policies which resonate widely.

As to the first, Jacinda Ardern, who is 33, has celebrity tonalities which some worry could overshadow Cunliffe if fully exploited pre-election. But she is not leader-material yet. (Though don’t be surprised if she is deputy leader by next February if Labour loses.)

As to a “progressive” push, the best the “congress” is planning a dose of 35-year-old Chris Hipkins.

Labour has been dolloping out policy recently, including its fiscal plan last week, complete with a capital gains tax, a 36 per cent marginal income tax rate for the over-$150,000 brigade (down from 2011’s 39 per cent) and net debt down to 3 per cent of GDP by 2020-21. As in 2011, the numbers are unusually detailed for a party in opposition.

On Saturday there was Trevor Mallard’s “skill”-focused immigration policy. This week, assuming no late change of plan, a raft of education announcements has been scheduled, culminating in an education item being a centrepiece of Cunliffe’s keynote.

Hipkins has tried to bring a new energy to an old portfolio. He has taken a strategic approach, pushing an upgrade of teachers’ status and professional quality, with higher barriers to entry and to promotion to principal, but distinguished from National by aiming to get the cantankerous primary teachers union onside.

He wants a long-term plan to rebuild school infrastructure to enable more flexible learning environments and teacher collaboration and greater individual attention to children’s needs (including gifted children, often underprovided for now).

He wants full broadband access for children and their parents, as the East Tamaki Manaiakalaani project has done. He wants a code of ethics for teachers to aspire to, not a code of conduct to discipline them, and teachers on the governing council. He wants school funding recalibrated to end the need for donations. He wants a first-principles review of Tomorrow’s Schools so boards work better. He wants a public early childhood education system.

And much more. Hipkins has assembled one of the party’s most extensive policy rewrites. It reflects his research before coming into Parliament and some wide-ranging consultation since.

Education — also a focus for third-term-seeking National — has obvious relevance to the youngsters 48-year-old Harre is after. It is highly relevant to parents. That is a wide swathe of electors.

Whether it is “progressive” enough to kickstart Labour’s egress from this weekend’s shadows is another matter.