Dr Bryce Edwards’ NZ Politics Daily Political Roundup: Labour needs to rediscover its political soul

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In the last few days the Labour Government has come in for criticism for its panicked pandering to opinion polls. Last week it announced petrol tax cuts and reduced public transport fares. This was in response to pressure from opponents and the public who alleged the Government was out of touch on the cost of living crisis, and following a poll showing Labour behind National.

Likewise, the Government has decided to fast-forward the dismantling of the Covid protections framework – expect to see Covid passes and mandates being phased out. This all has the appearance of Labour choosing pragmatism over principle.

TVNZ’s Jack Tame has been scathing, telling his Newstalk ZB audience on Saturday that the recent petrol tax cuts were a kneejerk reaction: “The truth is, petrol taxes would never have been cut if Labour had been well ahead in last week’s poll. They saw the poll numbers. They freaked out. They dropped almost $400m to try and win back some popularity.” Tame argued that there are more targeted ways to relieve the cost of living crisis.

He calls the government’s actions “cowardly”, “cynical and reactionary”, concluding: “Once again, Jacinda Ardern’s Government has shown it’s more interested in doing what is popular than what is right.”

Tame’s point is that the petrol tax cuts went against the bigger and longer-term goal of shifting people off reliance on fossil fuels through higher prices. He argues that other crises such as housing see the Government only ever thinking about the short-term.

In terms of the transport package, there’s evidence Tame is right. On Friday the Government admitted that the decision had been rushed into implementation bypassing the usual scrutiny of officials. Finance Minister Grant Robertson admitted that Cabinet decided to sidestep putting the tax cuts through a Regulatory Impact Analysis in which the proposal’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as alternatives, are considered by relevant government agencies. Instead, Cabinet agreed to a “post-implementation assessment”.

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The website Interest.co.nz asked economists for their view on the reforms: “The policy didn’t meet the sniff test of the economists interest.co.nz spoke to, who characterised it as political, reactionary, poorly targeted, short-termist and interventionist.”

Of course, the counter argument is that the Government was listening to the public and being nimble in their response. Focus groups and market research would have given the Government a good steer on exactly what pressures were afflicting the public and how to address them.

It seems that the Government has to resort to a reactive approach instead of being proactive because it lacks any real underpinning vision about where it wants to take the country. To have direction, political leaders need to have policy, values, and be embedded in a milieu of critical thinking and innovation.

This is traditionally what a political party is. It’s a big think tank of on-the-ground policy development based on a vision of a particular sort of world that it wants to create. The problem for Ardern and her colleague is that this is entirely lacking for them. There is no mass membership party feeding ideas and policies up from its base. In fact, the last Labour Party annual conference showed that the party barely has any debate at all, and certainly no real decision making powers like it used to.

Without a useful anchor in society, the Labour Government is now just floating around, lost at sea, only reacting to events as they arise. It means the party and government have little chance of taking the country anywhere, and voters will eventually tire of its managerial approach. To sell itself based on its competence during the Covid crisis is not going to work again at the next election – especially since much of that competence has been more questionable since 2020.

Leftwing blogger Steven Cowan wrote in the weekend that Labour’s values now seem to be “defending the status quo” and “staying in power”, which is hardly very inspirational. Labour used to stand for more than that.

And for Cowan the problem is that voters don’t have much choice of parties: “Elections have been captured by big money, lobbyists and the media while the policy convergence between the present parliamentary parties has crushed real choice. It has produced disenfranchisement and disillusionment”.

Columnist Andrea Vance is even more scathing of where Labour values have gone, writing yesterday: “In their second term, Labour has become adept at downplaying their mistakes, discrediting those who criticise, encouraging misinformation and diverting attention from bad news, while wrapping themselves in meaningless cultural signals.”

The Government can jettison the more unpopular parts of its reform programme – especially things like its hate speech law reforms, and perhaps Three Waters – but what will these be replaced with? When a party lacks connection to its voter base, and has no strong ideological underpinnings, it is forced to make up policies as it goes, reacting to opinion polls. It means that badly formulated policies like KiwiBuild are quickly dreamt up, and just as quickly discarded when they become embarrassing. Cycling bridges are announced and then un-announced, again all in reaction to polls.

The even bigger problem is that Labour has forgotten its own traditional voter base. This is observable in the fact that they have overseen a massive transfer of wealth to the rich, while the poor have simply got poorer. Bernard Hickey says this transfer has been more than $1 trillion. Hence Duncan Garner writes today in the NBR, “Labour has served the wealthiest Kiwis to a high standard indeed during this pandemic. And they won’t be thanked, they’ll be shown the door. More than $20b was spent on wage subsidies alone, paid to bosses to help pay wages. Then there was the Reserve Bank’s aggressive loosening of monetary policy, which saw some homeowners gain billions of dollars in wealth as housing prices soared while the poor were still in a motel waiting for a phone call from Kāinga Ora.”

This is why transformation is not possible under Labour at the moment, and why the party has become conservative. It’s been cut adrift from its original principles and support bases. This makes it more likely to lose power at the next election. Ultimately Labour needs to find a way to reconnect with some of its original working class constituents and ideologies. That’s the political soul of the Labour Party, and something that seems sorely missing at the moment.

Further reading on the Labour Government

Jack Tame (Herald): Petrol prices – Government cares more about polls than principles
Molly Swift (Stuff): TV presenter Jack Tame says Government more interested in doing what’s popular than what’s right
Today FM: Distance growing between voters, Ardern government – Political expert
Duncan Garner (NBR): Is Ardern out of touch or losing her touch? (paywalled)
Jenée Tibshraeny (Interest): Temporary fuel tax cut rushed through without proper scrutiny
Henry Cooke (Stuff): Government’s $350m fuel tax cut skipped usual scrutiny
Steven Cowan: The Politics of “meh”
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Voters are being gaslit all the way to next year’s election campaign
Jon Johansson (Stuff): What lessons, if any, can Jacinda Ardern take from this political history?
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Why Labour’s legacy might not be what it wants
Janet Wilson (Stuff): The stage is set for an election bunfight in 2023
Richard Prebble: It is going to be a landslide defeat for Labour
David Farrar: Jacinda may be right
Peter Dunne (Newsroom): This Labour government has been neither aspirational nor transformative

6 COMMENTS

  1. One simple, basic starting point would have been to implement the four year terms. Every single party was on board with that, at the time of the 2020 elections. Yet the govt’s timidity and hesitation was such that all they could come up with was, “Maybe we’ll put it to a referendum…”

    Yet this was one thing that the MPs themselves understand far better than does Joe Bloggs the plumber, Marie the cake maker, or anyone else out here in the wider community. They themselves know how long it can take to get a committee up and going and to reach whatever conclusions before recommending whatever actions etc etc – or to carry out the research, to undertake whatever studies, etc – all before they actually take any meaningful actions. And the three year terms slip away with nothing substantial achieved.

    Why were they unable to move ahead with that most basic of actions? …When the time was right and they had rare, unqualified support. Timid to the max.

  2. If we want our government to take a more serious, measured, longterm approach to all that they undertake, rather than rushing at this or that target in no time flat and without really appraising the consequences, then they have to have a timeframe in which they can work without continually looking over their shoulders and asking, “Where are the votes going now?” or, “Is this going to be reversed before it gets going?”

    And that applies whether we have a Labour or National majority, or some pieced together conglomerate leading the country.

    They have to have a timeframe in which they can work, in which they can carry out undertakings in a more considered way. Four years was agreed on by all as being more workable. They need that basic, operable timeframe.

      • Agree that we pay way too much attention to polls, which flip around week to week and serve nothing but distraction when they are as frequent as they are atm.

        But it is still the parliamentary term itself that has to be sufficient for addressing all of the 21st C’s demands. We’re a larger population now than even a decade ago, and a more diverse one. In order to really get to grips with the longer term needs of the nation, the govt needs more time than three years.

        During the first year they’re sorting out unresolved matters from the previous govt (whether same party or other); during the third year the pressure is on regarding the election. If something unexpected turns up in any of those years (think Covid, or extreme weather event – floods, fires, quakes etc, or some international crash-type situation) – then the time is gone.

  3. Soulless since at least ’84… the media needs to discover the truth and start calling out the purple propertied Party for what it is, loudly and on a daily basis.

  4. ‘Labour needs to rediscover its political soul’. That makes me think of death, and that you Bryce Edwards are trying to prevent Labour’s by giving it heart palpitations, and breathing life into its clogged arteries. And that is the reason that Labour cannot live, and you can’t win, because no-one knows where any rectification can be administered, or what it should be. You are on the edge of being jobless Dr Bryce Edwards, the subject of your attention has drunk Kool Aid in the form of solvent, and is disappearing into thin air. You may as well give up and watch the film Beetlegeuse which is quite funny about death and transmogrification (transitive verb. : to change or alter greatly and often with grotesque or humorous effect).

    You think about a soul when you are alive, it’s too late for retrospective ex post facto. I think I will throw some Latin terms into my mumblings. We have been talking and writing in understandable language for many decades getting nowhere because people wilfully do not wish to understand?* So I may as well throw in some Latin (which has a sound historical basis) and it will appear as if I have some special knowledge that results in holding attention for ten seconds. If we use Maori prudently we will get to tap into what is enlightening from them, so it’s absorbed where English has not been helpful, (after all stats show our poor success in teaching simple reading and wrirting in English, neither by ruler or fiat!)

    * SINCLAIR, Upton, born 1878, American novelist and social reformer. It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/11/30/salary/

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