Labour moving to the right would be a disaster for the left. It doesn’t need to, in order to lead a winning coalition at the next election. The last time a small cabal in Labour tried that strategy was in 1984 – it proved to be a disaster for New Zealand and for the Labour Party.
The years after 1984 were when we fell behind Australia, where a different Labor government didn’t follow Douglas’ crash through followed by crash, but modernised their economy sensibly in an Accord with the union movement. Here the Labour Party left government in 1990 in a landslide after the 1987 crash exposed the fallacy of self-correcting financial markets, and the result was Ruth Richardson, the mother of all budgets, the formation of ACT and nine years in the wilderness for Labour.
I worked to elect Labour in 1984 as a member of the Party staff. Election night was exciting and euphoric; but I well remember finding a copy of “Economic Management”, the Treasury briefing paper that became the actual policy of that government, on the party photocopier on the Monday after. I still remember thinking – “My God what have we done!” I leaked it to Rob Campbell – those were the days! I then spent three years fighting the Labour government policy in order to re-elect the same Labour government.
I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone else.
Right now, I find it ironic that as the Labour Party goes through a consultative review of all its processes and structures, including its approach to policy formulation, at the same time we are seeing a series of hints in the media about what changes Labour may make to its policy – mostly about ditching one or another element of the policies Labour took into the last election based on a policy process that was forged out of the experience of the 1980’s. We all know how it works: insider talks to insider talks to media – but the end result is a leaky ship, and they tend to sink, even if slowly.
I’m not actually sure that what we are seeing at the moment in the Labour leadership is a definitive shift to the right – more like a tentative search for the marshmallow centre, so beloved of the political media. As a strategy, it is a recipe for failure.
Shearer said in his speech that his passion was education, and that:
Study after study shows that the most important ingredient is the quality of teachers. We need to value teachers. We need every teacher in our classroom to be a good one.
I couldn’t agree more. So I looked for the single thing that he would actually do if he was Prime Minister that would make a difference, that would make sure that every teacher in our classroom would be a good one. What was his answer? A bit of weeding. You don’t make a good garden just by weeding.
And what has happened? All the media has fastened on the throwaway line about getting rid of bad teachers, to the point where John Armstrong calls it auditioning for a place at the National Party cabinet table. We can’t blame the media – that was all there was on offer.
The Labour party, due to celebrate its centenary in four years time, deserves better. Peter Fraser would be rolling in his grave. We need some substantive policy, that will make a real difference. There is plenty of experience about what would make a difference in education the the party; David Shearer should make use of it, to tell us what he would actually do – just wanting to make a difference doesn’t cut it.
We also need to recognise that the left now has to pick up from and moderate the excesses of global financial capital in the 21st century, rather than the excesses of industrial capital in the 19th and 20th centuries. But Labour’s values and principles of fairness and social justice remain the same. That is what I would like to hear more about from Shearer. Serious stuff with some serious answers, in the style of Savage, Fraser and Clark. He should take all the time he needs.