For most of my time in politics I have belonged to liberal democratic UnitedFuture (or the United Party as it was previously known). Prior to that, however, I spent more than 22 years as a member of the Labour Party – possibly a longer time in the Party than many of its current Caucus, and virtually all of the fly-by-night candidates dragged together for this election. Although all that was a long time ago, I still cherish many happy memories of my years with Labour.
However, the Labour Party today is vastly different from the Party I joined as a university student, or even that which UnitedFuture supported on confidence and supply matters during the Helen Clark years. The sense of optimism and enthusiasm for New Zealand that pervaded Labour previously in even the darkest of times now seems to have deserted it completely. Labour appears these days to be against everything, and for nothing. Maybe it is the permanently grim, dark disposition of its current leader, or maybe it is the length of time the Party has spent in Opposition. (Nine years is a long time, and should Labour fail at this election, it will be facing its longest period in Opposition in half a century.) Whatever, the effect is that Labour and its image seem more and more out of time and irrelevant.
The reaction to the recent Budget was but the latest example of this. Labour was the only Party to oppose outright the tax and benefit changes in the Budget. Other Parties certainly expressed their misgivings and offered alternative ways by which families could be uplifted, but, at the same time, supported the Budget legislation because they recognised the incongruity of opposing outright a set of measures from which many New Zealand families will benefit. By its blanket opposition, Labour simply revealed its sourness and churlishness, and the fact that under its current leadership, at least, it has lost the capacity to appreciate that other Parties can have good ideas too. (It seems to think that only it can do things to assist the less well-off, and it is unreasonably affronted when others make what it sees as a raid on its traditional territory. This bitter, graceless approach smacks of the worst of envy politics (even the CTU welcomed aspects of the Family Assistance Package!) and is a pathetic throwback to the cloth-cap politics of a bygone era.
France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, is worth considering in this regard. He arrived from nowhere, on the basis of a telling critique of the traditional major Parties in France. Macron’s strong point was that people were tired of being told by the traditional Parties what their view of the world was, and how citizens should fit into that. Rather, he argues, people today are seeking a more responsive form of politics where political parties tune their policies to the public’s perception of needs, and see things through their prism, not the other way round. It is a version of the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul’s observation that “common sense reflects the shared values of a community.”
For its part, Labour still seems trapped by having a singular view of the world which they believe voters will come to accept, then embrace, once they hear more of it. In this world, compromise and pragmatism are unwelcome dirty words, lest they dilute the “true” message. Add to that, Labour’s deliberate courting of a variety of lobby groups over the years. While a fundamentally wise strategy to grow the Party’s support base (what American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson once called the knitting together of individual peggy squares to form a blanket), Labour has managed to end up becoming no more than a hostage to its vested interests’ various demands in policy and candidate terms. As such, it is far from the blanket, and much more a set of loose, discordant, jarring peggy squares, lacking a leadership thread to weave them together. For New Zealanders living in today’s post-ideological world, their primary expectation of a Government of any hue is that it does its best for them in the circumstances. They judge it on that basis, not the extent of its forelock-tugging to the interests that lie behind it. They expect Governments to be outward looking and flexible, not forever looking backwards over their shoulder.
The story of Budget 2017 is simple – a substantial Family Assistance Package from which most households will benefit to some extent or other, supported up to a point by every Party bar Labour. When it comes to deciding which Parties are on families’ sides, and which are not, the result is stark. Labour’s “we know best” attitude stands defiantly and forlornly all by itself. Labour – for so long the party of reform – is now but a hollow shadow of itself. Saddening to some, but surprising to few.