On Monday I briefly covered the first half of an article from Liam Byrne concerning why Labour lost power in the UK in 2010. The article isn’t all doom and gloom.
Byrne identifies three lessons the he feels Labour needs to learn in order to return to being a party of government. I think the same lessons are largely applicable to the New Zealand situation…
First, we have to transform the politics of aspiration once again. If we want to revitalise the coalition that took us to power in 1997, we have to set out with a new crispness how the power of government is going to help modern families get on in life in 21st-century Britain.
In 2005, Labour was 18 per cent ahead of the Tories amongst 25-34 year-olds. At this election, we were five per cent behind. It was the age group where our vote fell sharpest. Aspiration and opportunity have always been the uniting idea that bonds our coalition together – and education has always been its symbol. At the last budget, we boosted education spending, even amidst the budget challenges we confronted. We were the only party that did. But we couldn’t find a way to punch this through a hostile media. We should redouble our efforts.
Aspiration through education? Check.
I’d say that this is an even bigger problem for New Zealand Labour – we have National’s vacuous “build a brighter future” message on the right, and a very future focussed platform from the Greens on our left.
Second, let’s agree that now is no time for a modest renewal. A wide sweep of policy needs to change.
That is why we need a plan that renews our approach to jobs, tax and benefits, the minimum wage, welfare reform, skills and higher education, university funding, child care, social care, social housing and pensions. Otherwise, we will be left without an offer for aspirational families.
The key is not to take a narrow focus. If the worst paid third of British workers are to keep up, we need a fundamental change in the productivity of the industries they work in, a change in the pace of wage rises, a new look at the tax and benefit system, and new kinds of help from child care to social care to let people work the hours they might like to for a better standard of living.
To be fair, in 2011 the New Zealand Labour Party went to the electorate with the biggest sea change in policy in at least a generation. We weren’t afraid to tackle the old taboos. We normalised the idea of a capital gains tax (it had been seen as a very fringe idea before 2011), suggested raising the retirement age and looked at other radical changes in the areas of taxation and monetary policy.
Was the problem that the package was not enough to spark the interest of middle New Zealand? Was the problem that we didn’t communicate it effectively enough? Time will tell, but we certainly need to take a long hard look at what went wrong.
And finally, the big ‘how’. I don’t really have a lot to add to this. I think it sums up where we need to be looking. I am sure that these themes will feature strongly in the upcoming Labour Review, and just as importantly, I hope that the new leadership team is willing to take an active role in fostering an active role for Labour in our communities.
Third, we must put community politics at the centre of our party work. In Birmingham, we did well fending off a Tory attack. Gisela Stuart’s extraordinary triumph in Edgbaston will be one of the great memories of election night. In my own seat, we managed to put up the Labour majority.
These results were not delivered by direct mail from on high – but by community campaigning on the ground. Not many of Gisela’s – or my – volunteers were paid-up Labour members. But they delivered a Labour victory.
So, we urgently need a style of campaigning-led politics in our communities led by local Labour politicians.
Learning the lessons from the US, Edgbaston tripled the size of its activist base by adopting a philosophy that ‘organisation [is] built on the belief of the power of the individual to bring about change in their community’. This is not about CLPs discussing the minutes of the last meeting. This is about political leadership building a community coalition focused on changing things locally.
Success will demand reaching out to the civic activists and social entrepreneurs who share our appetite to make a difference on the ground. Canvassing is not enough any more. Community campaigning means bringing progressive people together to battle for local change. But this is about more than the renewal of the party’s ability to win elections. This ethos should become part of re-asserting Labour as the party of responsibility and community.
It demands the Labour party as a party does more in local communities to support, mentor and inspire the change-makers who want to make a difference to what is going on outside their front door, but do not know where to start. In other words it demands a constant exercise in imagination in every aspect of our work in government and out on the streets of our communities, to put community life first. That means going back to the organising traditions that gave birth to the Labour party over a century ago, where the ballot box was only one of the ways we made change happen. But the reality is that today’s Labour party is hardly set-up, or indeed, resourced to help.