Leadership contenders must face outwards

Labour’s leadership election process has now formally commenced. While some of us would have preferred a full and fundamental review to take place first, Labour now has a path forward and must make the best of the agreed process. Given that the process is front-loaded with a leadership contest, that means there is now an onus on the contenders to provide a frank and constructive analysis of Labour’s current predicament, and to map out the way forward for Labour to once again become the ‘big party’ that can anchor future progressive government in New Zealand.

The massive scale of Labour’s defeat on 20 September suggests we should primarily assess the contenders against their willingness to recognise the crisis and find a way forward. We should also consider whether they are most likely to personify to voters the patently unattractive brand of politics that, over a period of time, took Labour to twenty five percent, or whether they are capable of re-connecting with hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who continue to hold Labour in their thoughts, but simply will not vote for the party in its current state.

I call these people the “yeah, buts” and while campaigning in Epsom I would meet them constantly. Candidates across a broad suite of electorates report the same phenomena. These voters often had a history of voting Labour or a genuine affinity with core Labour principles, but were turned off by some aspect of our proposition. The specifics varied, from concerns about leadership and/or disunity, to a feeling that some key policies would impact them unfairly, and a general sense that they couldn’t identify with the Party or that it was unclear what Labour, at heart, stands for in 2014.

The overwhelming impression was that Labour had lost its connection with many progressive New Zealanders, certainly too many for us to be a viable contender for government.

The leadership contenders must demonstrate how they will invert Labour’s current focus and energy from ourselves, back to the lives of real people and their communities. This needs to start with a vision for how a twenty first century social democratic party engages with modernity. It’s about being open, welcoming, and genuinely pluralistic, but it’s also about structure — understanding how social networks and organisation have changed in recent decades and reflecting this in the way that we organise and engage. An example — Labour retains a strong, formal, and important relationship with trade unions, but given the relative decline of union membership, what have we done to develop more structured relationships with the thriving ‘third sector’ parts of civil society who represent large progressive constituencies in which we have a weak presence?

Confidently engaging with the wider community will require Labour to have both an open mind to new ideas, and a renewed conviction about our core mission. At the moment we have the worst of both worlds – people see us as closed minded and inflexible, but lacking in purpose. The leadership contenders must come forward and clearly state how the Labour party they lead will define itself. We necessarily have many policies, and there a range of sound principles in our Policy Platform, but what above all else describes who we are and what we offer New Zealand? For my money a very good starting point (and don’t necessarily read this as a candidate endorsement) is the speech given by David Parker at this year’s party Congress in which he acknowledges a range of priorities for Labour, but states that at heart we are about the notion of economic egalitarianism – fair opportunities and fair outcomes for all New Zealanders.

When we are confident about our core purpose, Labour will engage more easily with our various strategic and tactical challenges, and with the wider community. Engaging with the community could include an updated version of the ‘Labour Listens’ exercise that took place after the 1990 electoral wipeout, to ensure that our policy matches people’s concerns and aspirations. We will also need to consider aspects of our internal culture and processes (including candidate selection) that incentivise cake cutting rather than cake growing. And crucially, a more internally confident ‘big tent’ Labour party will set about developing more mature and constructive relationships with likely partners in an alternative government, most especially with the Greens.

A defeat on the scale that Labour has just suffered cannot be minimised. Political parties are adaptable and can come back from bad defeats, but only when they accept their problems and change. It is up to the Labour leadership contenders to look party members in the eye and speak honestly about the challenge we face and the changes we must make. The candidate who puts forward a vision and a plan for a renewed ‘big party’ that is unified, outwards facing, and confident about its core purpose, deserves the support of all who care about Labour.