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21 March 2015

Why Labour is in crisis throughout the Anglosphere

The leader of the New Zealand Labour Party on the shared challenges for social democrats.

By Tim Wigmore

It is easy to blame Ed Miliband for Labour’s problems; too easy. Labour parties are in crisis all throughout the Anglosphere: they are in opposition in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Their problems go far deeper than the identities of their party leaders.

Labour’s fate seems especially bleak in New Zealand. Here the centre-right National Party reign: Labour won just 32 out of 121 seats in the general election last year, and only 25 per cent of the vote. Nowhere is Labour’s battle for relevance more urgent.

The party leader Andrew Little does not deny as much when we meet in his parliamentary office on the morning before New Zealand played England in the Cricket World Cup. While the Kiwis dream of winning the tournament they are co-hosting, Little, elected as leader in November, has an even more onerous challenge: to plot how to return Labour to government when New Zealand goes to the polls in 2017.

“The social democratic challenge around the world is not too different,” Little tells me. He implores Labour parties to be “able to talk about wealth generation and wealth creation as well as fairness of distribution”: to rediscover optimism.

He is frank about Labour’s disastrous campaign last September. Little admits that aspects of Labour’s policy programme – its plans to introduce a capital gains tax; and to raise the age of eligibility for superannuation – “frightened people”. Added to confusion about what Labour’s approach to a coalition would be, it “came together to say – these guys aren’t fit to govern.”

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Little is determined to learn from these mistakes. It might be that as a former trade union official, he will find it easier to reorientate Labour to a position from which it can again win elections. “The language the commentators keep using is ‘moving to the centre, moving to the centre’. And I think it is about getting down to a small number of priority issues,” he says. Last year, one of Labour’s problems was drowning the electorate in policy detail. “What I’m determined is that for the 2017 election, we won’t do what we did last time, which was have 120-odd policies,” Little says. Instead the party will offer a pledge card highlighting five or six main policies, much like Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1997.

He sees rehabilitation for Labour lying in “finding a language and ideas that resonate with people that say, actually, there is a different way of doing this.” Labour parties must be seen as modern and forward thinking, and not merely lamenting the changing nature of the international economy that has eradicated the notion of a job for life. “That is where the future lies – being able to talk about the future of work.”

In theory the rise in economic insecurity should provide fertile ground for Labour parties the world over, yet they are shedding votes among the economic strugglers for whom they were created to speak. “Parties of the right are often labeled better economic managers,” Little says. In New Zealand, Labour was “not…relevant to that debate” at the last election. The party was accused of prioritising social issues – it advocacy was crucial in same sex marriage being legalised in 2013, while it has also campaigned to have euthanasia legalised – at the expense of day-to-day working life. “The challenge for us is to get away from the polarising issues, important as they will be for a number of people, and deal with those issues that affect and touch everybody.”

“We need to find a way to communicate and reach out to those people who are the worst affected,” Little admits. “If we’re a) communicating the problems and b) the solutions, it’s going to be in a language that people understand, and the people that we most want to understand are those who are rapidly being left out,” Little says.

Such voters are not short of alternatives in New Zealand. The country is providing another example of the fears of the UK Labour party: of being abandoned by its core vote. The Kiwi example suggests that a proportional voting system accelerates this process. In 1994, New Zealand adopted mixed member proportional representation. The years since have seen a growing chasm on the political left. Support for the Greens has mushroomed: they got 11 per cent of the vote in both the last two elections. “There’s a lot of policy areas where we share, that we have in common,” Little accepts. 

Two decades after the introduction of proportional representation, the Labour Party has still not entirely adjusted to the fact. Uncertainty over how Labour would approach coalition negotiations contributed to the disastrous result last year. “The electorate expects the lead parties to be clear about who their most likely coalition partners are going to be and what are the policy platforms they accept and reject. We didn’t do that,” Little says.

The Greens are not the only competition Labour face. Little says “a large chunk” of Labour’s lost vote between 2011 and 2014 went to New Zealand First. Ostensibly it is tempting to compare them to Ukip, but the party is less rabid in its anti-immigration platform and more leftist in its economic outlook. Either way, that Labour has lost votes to competing parties is further evidence of the challenges all Labour party face adjusting to an age of diminished trade unions.

In New Zealand, Labour’s challenge is made harder by the identity of the Prime Minister: the folksy John Key, perhaps the most successful conservative politician around today. “He has a very engaging style of communication,” Little says. “There’s that sense that he kind of cut through the bulls*** if you like, and spoke very directly, and people found that engaging. I think he’s got a healthy level of self-deprecation, which I think Kiwis like to see, we’re not a people who like to take ourselves too seriously.”

But Little accuses the National Party – and right-wing parties across the Anglosphere – of adopting unsavoury tactics. “There’s now a common culture of very negative campaigning, you know the Crosby influence,” he says – Lynton Crosby’s campaigning firm, Crosby Textor, has been used extensively by John Key. “They run these incredibly negative campaigns while they’re in office against opposition parties.”

It is another reminder of what awaits Ed Miliband in the next six weeks. Little has another two years before he has to worry about electioneering; time he intends to use transforming the image of a party that has been “ill-defined in the minds of the electorate”.

“What do people most want? They want a sense of security, economic security as well as physical security, so we have to be able to talk about that,” Little says. “That’s the place where we need to be. And it’s a place where I think conservative parties cannot credibly occupy, because it’s never been their issue.”

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