Labour not "part of the communities we live in"

Labour leadership aspirant Grant Robertson told a blunt truism to Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand the Monday after the election. “Politics has to be about more than elections,” he said. “It has to about being part of the communities we live in.”

The National party is part of the communities its many members live in. The Labour party (mostly) is not.

National’s great strength from 1949 to 1972, when it ran the government for 20 of 23 years, was that its large membership infused society and most of society’s many interest groups and associations. That kept open myriad two-way channels through which messages went up to the party and ministers and down from the government into the communities.

Labour since the 1980s has become a cadre party, more focused on being ideologically correct than divining needs and aspirations across a wide swathe of society and working out responses from Labour first principles.

Within that cadre party is a “left-left” cadre which is fighting battles begun in the 1980s when a few radicals seized paramount power in the cabinet and dismantled Labour’s post-1935 “guaranteed job” and “living wage”.

Alongside this theological left-left is a coalition of representatives of minorities such the gender-disadvantaged, the disabled, ethnic groups and the 1980s-type feminists who drove last year’s abortive “man ban” to manipulate women into electorate candidate selections.

The left-left and minorities wrecked the 2012 conference, which had showed signs of renewed vibrancy.

These two cadres filled the gap when the organised working class waned in numbers and power. There was a logic: unions fight for underdogs and so do minorities’ representatives.

But most people live in a majority which can roughly be called middle New Zealand: jobs, mortgages, kids. They might sympathise with minorities but that is someone else’s issue. Many came to see Labour as embodied in the left-left’s and minorities’ representatives’ rhetoric, which to them does not sound like the living embodiment of the instincts, values and aspirations of “the communities we live in”.

The message from two elections in a row — arguably the past nine elections — is that Labour’s MPs and party members have both to spread out through those communities with eyes and ears wide open and to draw large numbers of people in those communities into Labour’s membership and support groups.

Helen Clark’s personal power and connectedness veiled the disconnect.

But she also pointed a way to fix it. After the just-survival vote of 28 per cent in 1996, she set out round the country, meeting as many people as she could and getting noticed in provincial print and television media.

She once likened this to the Viet Cong’s strategy against the United States’ overwhelmingly superior fire-power in the 1960s. It infused the countryside. The towns eventually fell.

Labour will need every minute of three years and maybe six — not least because its starts with a cadre-dominated council.

It will require tough leadership and tough discipline. The show of unity behind David Cunliffe, though a real show, was never more than a show.

That tough leadership will need to lean on politically aged or underperforming MPs to find “personal reasons” for retirement. It will need somehow to ensure that candidates representing wider New Zealand stand in electorate by-elections or come in off the list.

Then that tough leadership needs to make itself relevant to middling mortgage-belt voters’ needs and aspirations. The mortgage belt might talk compassion but doesn’t do it in the polling booth. How did “left-Len” Brown win Auckland’s mortgage belt in 2010? Why does National now hoover up the (hard-working, upwardly mobile) Indian and Chinese vote?

To “fairness” Labour needs to add “opportunity”, Robertson told Ryan.

That needs a first-principles rethink of policy, related to the real world of the radically changing hyperconnected and hyperglobalised 2010s. There is some new thinking in the northern hemisphere which could inform brainy, centre-leftist David Parker (if he sticks around) and younger MPs if they are ready to make the now-due generational break with the baby-boomer years.

The party council’s review, due to report on December 7, is too short-term to do that first-principles rethink. That would need a second, deeper, tougher, harder-nosed, longer-sighted review.

Then the party needs money. Its president and secretary failed at that, senior party figures say, giving examples of missed opportunities. One likely 2020s cabinet minister not yet in Parliament reckons $1 million in off-years and $3 million in election year.

And then — this is a long list — Labour has to work out a durable, tight “coalition-government-in-waiting” working relationship with the Greens, which David Shearer encouraged and Cunliffe nipped.

None of this is news-bulletin drama. It is back-breaking work. Labour has the relevant word in its title. But words are not enough.