Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Labour needs to rediscover its political soul

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Labour needs to rediscover its political soul

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”.

The website asked economists for their view on the reforms: “The policy didn’t meet the sniff test of the economists 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 a conservative one. 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.