Labour: will 2015 mark "the end of the beginning"?

Last week the Reserve Bank stayed stoutly within its orthodoxy. The Labour party’s challenge is to make a new orthodoxy from its old principles. Both have found mid-2010s realities don’t fit pre-2008 conventions.

The bank talked of its difficulty in “these days of unconventional monetary policy”. Labour’s 25 per cent last election told it that conventional Labour did not work.

The bank’s role a quarter-century ago was to get inflation down. High inflation deterred investment and penalised those on fixed and low incomes. Over time the target was settled at 2 per cent, a common rich-country central bank target. That 2 per cent target now requires the bank to get inflation up.

You, living in a world where the commonsense is not out of place, might think low inflation is a good thing and price falls are even better. John Key and Bill English, by showing no interest in adjusting the monetary policy targets agreement, live in a different world.

This is just one conundrum facing Grant Robertson as he heads off soon to an international gathering of “progressive” think-tankers in Mexico similar to the one he went to in April 2014 in Amsterdam and as he prepares to announce tomorrow the members of an “external reference group” for his “future of work commission”.

Robertson, who is next-generation on from the cohort that ran the Labour-led governments in the 2000s, knows adjusting 2014 policies a bit and marketing them a bit better won’t rebuild Labour to a fulltime role as a genuine alternating government with National.

Labour’s course over the past 50 years has been down off a big vote based on unions and the working class to a party with no solid voting base and an unconvincing policy pitch. A distant third in the Northland by-election on Saturday week won’t help.

Commonsense suggests a searching, brutal rethink.

That in effect will be former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen’s message to a Christchurch Labour meeting on Thursday. Otherwise, he will warn, Labour might wither into minor-party status — not a place in which to celebrate the party’s centenary in 2018.

That is the context for Andrew Little’s drive to reconnect with middle New Zealand and wage workers in the suburbs and provinces and Robertson’s reapplication of century-old principles (as the “party of work and of the workers”) to modern realities in which work and workers aren’t what they used to be.

Little, from some accounts, is prompting some “selfies”. His down-to-earth manner connects much better than did his two predecessors’ personalities. That doesn’t put him in Key’s league but it holds some promise of repair.

And there is a wisp of poll evidence: from a 24 per cent average in November to 30 per cent in February.

That is a minimum of 8 points short of where Labour needs to be to form a credible, stable government in 2017 (Helen Clark got 38 per cent in her first win in 1999). But the trend (so far) has been up.

What does Labour have to do from here?

Cullen’s recipe for responding to the multiple “centrifugal forces” he says pulled apart Labour’s support base is to persuade voters Labour identifies with them on choice, aspiration, responsibility and national pride.

Young people, Cullen says, expect an ever-widening range of choice so Labour must level up, not down. Robertson highlighted choice in a speech on February 11.

Aspiration connects with a foundational Labour concept of state health, education and other assistance to ensure all have, and can take advantage of, opportunity. Robertson highlighted opportunity in his speech, including to “be your own boss, to turn an idea into a business”.

Tax is part of that, a particularly challenging task for Robertson.

The idea of responsibilities to each other, Cullen says, lies at the heart of social democracy and complements the idea of rights. When David Shearer ventured there the hard-left shouted him down and demanded David Cunliffe in his place.

Robertson did not go there in February but he is on all fours with Cullen on general responsibilities to the environment.

Cullen’s national pride line might bother some in the party but, if translated into national identity and independence, it could resonate. Norman Kirk trailblazed that in ahead-of-his-time speeches nearly 50 years back. Kirk also prefigured biculturalism. Tomorrow’s national identity will increasingly be built from multiple cultures, as Cullen and Robertson emphasise.

Robertson’s commission will report late this year to provide a platform on which policy is built in 2016. If it delivers a real rethink, that could mark the “end of the beginning” for Labour.

But to get from there to the “beginning of the end” of the rebuild needs new president Nigel Haworth also to pump up membership and local presence and top it with a tight, supra-factional executive body.

Wear and tear on Key and Co might give Labour a term or two in office. But that would not make it a real match for National. As Cullen and Robertson know.