Bryce Edwards: When “Labour got cool”

Bryce Edwards: When “Labour got cool”

#LabourGotCool according to MP Kiri Allan, who tweeted yesterday while waiting for Jacinda Ardern to deliver her keynote speech at the party’s annual conference in Dunedin.

Ardern’s speech was the highlight of what was a very successful weekend for the party. Once more, the Prime Minister showed her star power and impressed with a strong speech in which she celebrated her Government’s achievements in their first year in office.

It was something of a “victory parade” according to many commentators, all of whom deemed the conference a triumph for the party. Ardern’s speech itself is well-covered by Toby Manhire, who draws attention to the crowd’s rapturous reception to her announcement of 600 new learning support coordinators in schools – see: Ardern scatters mailbag confetti in her first leader speech to Labour conference.

Manhire is worth quoting at length: “The announcement won a series of ovations from the crowd – that’s no surprise, conferences always deliver ovations. You could announce to conference your commitment to allowing New Zealanders to sing in the shower and you’d get an ovation. But still there was a palpable sense – even watching via the livestream – that this was different to the ovations for conference announcements across the last decade.”

The “cool” factor is also addressed by Manhire: “I mean, of course it’s different: people actually expect it will happen. Well, that and, as rising Labour star Kiri Allan put it, post-Jacinda ‘Labour got cool’. The rebirth of Labour cool was there from the leadup, as Clarke Gayford noted the ‘positively infectious’ mood of the conference, something new to plenty of delegates.”

A buoyant and united party conference

Allan’s tweet also emphasised that “Party conferences have changed”. And this was something plenty of commentators picked up on – especially the stark contrast between last year’s meeting, and this one.

Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins put this very well, pointing to the fact that 1200 people crammed into the conference to hear Ardern, leaving others outside: “The hundreds of Labour supporters turned away from an overflowing Dunedin town hall for Jacinda Ardern’s first speech to a Labour conference as leader is in stark contrast to the last time they all gathered. That was in 2017 when Andrew Little could barely fill a hall and was out of ideas to avoid an electoral rout. Ardern’s biggest problem is managing expectations after Labour’s nine years in the political wilderness” – see: Jacinda Ardern’s message to the party faithful – ‘we can’t do it all’.

Similarly, Herald political editor Audrey Young wrote that even Ardern was much more impressive compared to her effort at last year’s Labour Party conference: “It was at the election Congress in May last year and it was underwhelming” – see: Jacinda Ardern set to show her substance at first Labour conference as leader.

Young says “It is a safe assumption that this will be one of the most genuinely buoyant conferences Labour has had since 2000 – which was the first conference after the Fifth Labour Government was elected under Helen Clark’s leadership.”

In fact, this is probably the happiest and healthiest looking Labour Party conference since the mid-1980s. We saw total unity, complete happiness from MPs and activists, and great optimism for the future. It really was like a victory conference.

A show of unity was obviously one of the main objectives for party organisers and the leadership. Tracy Watkins explained the lengths that the party had gone to achieve this: “the Labour machine has been nothing if not cautious; it has been in overdrive making sure nothing gets in the way of the air of celebration in Dunedin this weekend. Ardern flew down a day early for a series of soft media events well away from the conference floor to give the media pack heading down there something to chew on. But the photo ops do nothing to hide the very big hole in the programme over Saturday and Sunday when most events are closed to the media” – see: A year later, Ardern gets her victory parade. Other journalists were also less than impressed with the media being shut out of much of the conference.

Watkins elaborates on the importance of unity for Labour: “The perception of a divided and factional caucus dragged Labour down for years. The last thing it needs this year is a fight on the conference floor exposing divisions between the party’s union activists and its MPs over selling workers short on industrial relations reforms. The media management around this year’s conference suggests a determined plan to bring back the legendary discipline of the Helen Clark years”.

Defending the record and managing down expectations 

Although nothing negative was on show during the weekend, Ardern’s speech contained a response to her leftwing critics. Audrey Young reported: “Ardern also went somewhat on the defensive over two issues over which have been criticised by the Left – the Kiwibuild programme, which helps the middle class into home ownership, and the surpluses the Government is running” – see: Game-changer’: 600 dedicated teachers for high needs children.

In terms of KiwiBuild, Young says Ardern invoked Michael Joseph Savage to show that doing something is better than nothing. In replying to critics of the Government being too miserly on social and infrastructure spending, the PM said “The surplus is a safety net. Nobody knows what’s around the corner. The surplus in an insurance against those risks.”

The leadership also needed to keep a lid on supporters wanting the Government to do too much, or implement too much traditional Labour Party policy. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva noted that “Managing the expectations of jubilant party members, particularly when it comes to spending, was a constant throughout the conference” – see: Ardern feels the love as Labour revels in power.

There were plenty of progressive policy remits passed by the membership during the weekend, but as Tracy Watkins pointed out, “Ardern used her speech to remind the rank and file that they couldn’t do it all at once.” Watkins also points to some of the new policies: “proposal to subsidise or make free disposable or reusable menstrual products; universally free dental care, and extending ACC to cover illness or disability”, but explains how “Many of them will never get within cooee of government policy”.

The substance of the conference

Ardern had a substantial new policy to announce in her speech – the introduction of new “learning support coordinators” in schools, to help with students with complex and special learning needs.

This will win plaudits from the education sector and parents. And it also injects a much-needed leftwing ballast to the party, coming at time when some on the left might be wondering if the Government is doing enough to truly transform society.

Furthermore, the National Party even came out in support of the policy, with spokesperson Nikki Kaye saying that her party too wanted to increase funding in this sector (and pointing out the last government had increased funding by 30 per cent).

It’s also winning praise from commentators. Kate Hawkesby gives the policy a “bouquet” today in her column, One size doesn’t fit all in the classroom. But she also points out the context of the announcement: “The pressure on the Government’s been immense from striking teachers: to address poor pay and conditions, as well as widespread teacher shortages – teachers say low pay and high workloads are part of the reason they’re struggling to recruit.”

Therefore, the announcement – just one day before the resumption of employment negotiations between teachers and the government – looks like it amounts to making a virtue of necessity. Not only had the policy’s time come, but Labour needed to do something to placate the teachers, who had been demanding something along these lines.

Not surprisingly, the NZEI teachers union has responded very positively to the announcement. According to Tracy Watkins, “NZEI president Lynda Stuart said it was a big win for students, teachers and principals. It was a positive step as teachers went back into talks with the Ministry of Education over their collective contracts because it would help address workload issues” – see: 600 support teachers for kids with complex learning needs.

Finally, for a discussion of how much the Labour Party has changed, and how the turbulent and fraught past of the Lange-to-Clark years have now been put to bed, see Richard Harman’s Buoyant Labour airbrushes out Clark.