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Why Labour is not shifting to the centre

Written By: - Date published: 7:59 am, March 20th, 2012 - 55 comments
Categories: david shearer, labour - Tags:

Surprising title given the discussion of here and elsewhere? Yeah, I know.

But I want to contribute two things to the discussion. First, Shearer’s speech did not signal a shift in policy to the centre. Second, Labour does not need to shift to the centre in policy.

I think assertions that Labour needs to shift to the centre mischaracterize the problem. The problem wasn’t the policy; it was the salesmanship and messaging.

Labour allowed itself to be painted by the Nats as for minorities and the vulnerable. Absolutely we are. But we are also for everyone. An overwelming majority of New Zealanders don’t earn enough to live fulfilling lives. Labour is for them also: well we should be. Did we sound like we were in the election campaign?

What needs to change is not the policies but how we sell them.

We need to talk about growing wages: of which the $15 minimum wage is part.

We need to talk about increasing secure, stable work and heading  towards full employment: of which increasing the family benefit and changing employment laws is part. If we want to catch up to Australia- shouldn’t we adopt their industrial relations policy?

One set of messages is inclusive. The other, great policy, but not going to get enough people to vote for you: people who perhaps don’t reflect on politics much; or are disengaged from the process; or swing vote.

I think Shearer’s speech was more about narrative building than necessarily a policy shift.  The policy wasn’t the problem. The caucus, council and membership support the policies (for the most part). Shearer just needs to sell them better. I think the speech was about constructing the basis for a shift in messaging- not a shift in policy.

Or am I young and optimistic?

55 comments on “Why Labour is not shifting to the centre ”

  1. Gosman 1

    Some real comedy gems here.

    “The problem wasn’t the policy; it was the salesmanship and messaging.”

    One step away from blaming the media but even given that what exactly was wrong with the way the message was presented? All of those points you raised were also raised during the election campaign.

    “An overwelming majority of New Zealanders don’t earn enough to live fulfilling lives.”

    Kind of a patronising tone there. Maybe that is what is wrong with the way Labour’s message is being presented.

    “If we want to catch up to Australia- shouldn’t we adopt their industrial relations policy?”

    Perhaps, or perhaps we should adopt their mineral extraction policy. Certainly there is no evidence that I have seen that suggests just adopting a more structured industrial relations policy alone leads to better outcomes.

    “Or am I young and optimistic?”

    There are a few other words that spring to mind as well.

    • Jimmy Reid 1.1

      Um, Gosman. Ok. Read into it what you like.

      “One step away from blaming the media but even given that what exactly was wrong with the way the message was presented? All of those points you raised were also raised during the election campaign.”

      No I rather explicitly blame Labour’s campaign. It was appallingly messaged and had no narrative. That’s Labour’s fault. No one elses.

      “An overwelming majority of New Zealanders don’t earn enough to live fulfilling lives. Kind of a patronising tone there. Maybe that is what is wrong with the way Labour’s message is being presented.”

      How so? It’s a factual statement. NZers are increasingly working longer for less and where is the time for “a life”. Work isn’t a life; its part of one.

      And, Gosman, if you think the minerals is the reason everyone across all industries earns more then you need to have another look.

    • Spratwax 1.2

      I agree with Gosman- better to not be straight up with the voters when revealing policy and direction and just leave out your real intentions- the stuff voters won’t want to hear- until you get voted back in for a second term.

      Question: If Australia was the same size as NZ, and had the same type (and amount) of mineral wealth as us, would they have the same mineral extraction policy? Brainless RWNJ dickheads like Gosman would say ‘Yes’.

        • Spratwax

          Mining 500-1500kms from the nearest cities/large populations (Aus)as opposed to 20-100km in seismically active terrain, barren land vs land with native flora/fauna, strictly regulated (safety) industry vs the ‘wild west’ regulations of nz (remember Pike River?). Economists aided and abetted the economic meltdown the world experienced -and is still experiencing- give me a break! Idiot!

          • TighyRighty

            Worst spin response ever. Are you still saying that Australians are all rwnj dick heads? Or did you look at an atlas and think your ability to understand scale somehow trumps my economic commentary?

            • Puddleglum

              Sadly, some academic economists were up to their eyeballs in the events and causes of the financial crisis. Many took the trouble to write the arcane formulae for the derivatives used while others took it upon themselves to justify the practices (including writing reports recommending various forms of financial liberalisation).

              If you want to see ‘stellar’ academic economists thoroughly embarrassed on this issue by excellent interviewing techniques you should watch ‘Inside Job‘ (as I’m sure you have).

        • Jackal

          Considering the problems Australia is currently having, both environmentally and politically because of their mining policies, no we should not follow their lead that is promoted by idiotic trickle down theories. Our clean and green New Zealand is worth more than a hole in the desert.

        • fisiani

          They don’t want to read such eminent good sense. Every reasonable person knows that the Centre-Right policy being pursued here borrows good ideas from Australia such as getting more value from under the ground and letting parents know how good the local schools are. Both policies are not Right they are just right.

  2. Gosman 2

    Anyway it has been nice visiting you guys. Must take a break.

  3. just saying 3

    Or am I young and optimistic?

    Yes, but those are good things to be.

  4. If_you_see_Kay 4

    The election was mismanaged and many of the Labour Party advisors need to be replaced with younger and/or smarter versions. Perhaps you, Jimmy?

    Poor old Phil never stood a chance when his support crew was selected from the moron hordes of the Wellington pseudo-Left mediocracy.

    • shorts 4.1

      Labour needs a leader that doesn’t listen to the support crew full stop – they seem to be the problem

      not the parties policies…. the constant flip flopping… the mimicking of National… all seem from my outsiders perspective to be driven by faceless morons who don’t live in the same country nor world those who have given up on Labour do

      lead… don’t follow and who knows the country might actually support the party

  5. Squirrel 5

    Great to hear someone on the left talking about narrative. The right is masterful at creating narratives which selectively use the truth to make the left look bad. Nanny state, dole bludgers, bad parents, bad teachers.

    I think the left needs to build its own set of narratives eg, low wage economy, nats can’t manage the economy, poverty is not the fault of the individual. And we need to push these messages through the media and our marketing. We need to work over the medium to long term to move the debate to the left. The public like what we stand for eg high quality health care, eradicating poverty, decent social services, we just need to remind them what we stand for and how we differ from the nats.

    I think Shearer’s speech was weak and unappealing. And frankly I don’t have much confidence he has the vision or drive to revitalise the Labour party.

    • aerobubble 5.1

      I agree. But why would Nat-lite want to alienate big money and lose a chance at a nice boardroom job come time Labour loses power. Labour MPs are ‘selected’ not by the rank and file, or constituencies, they are chosen like Shearer, then given a list placing, on to find themselves MPs in govt.

      List seats need to be chosen by the voters, NO! NO! not like they do in Australian with a horrendous list choosing full single finger salute to the Ozzie voter, no. List rankings should be decided by the number of votes received at the election.

      But then the problem of the upper chamber, because MPs won’t have expertise (the list was supposed to put experience individuals into parliament to make up for the loss of a upper chamber), we’d need to reintroduce a upper chamber NO!NO! not like Australia, we need one like the UK with worthy sitting citizens.

      So nothing is going to change, we will continue to get the odd Mr 50,000, no, 100,000 as PM, who followed the Labour pm who stopped NZs getting benefit in Oz.

      And what a complete frak up, National gave us deregulated housing, now we get leaky strata polluting out under water acquifers for generations to come. Does parliament have any checks and balances, NO! Because if would require NZ to actually fund a parliament by having two chambers and then making sure they are forced to work by fear of a back bench revolt. Not going to happen.

      So what’s a citizen to do? Well what are NZers doing. They leave, they piss about, they corner a local monopoly and go hunting, who gives a toss about poverty, or leaky homes, leaky substrata, earthquake prone cities, etc.

      And why, at the emotional core of every NZ is they hate themselves for living in such a bueatiful country, its a surviver type guilt thing.

      • Australians do not choose list seats, they vote in STV elections for each electorate.

        Voting directly to determine a party’s list is called an “open list” system, more specifically, it’s a “most open list” that’s directly determined during the election.

  6. Tom Gould 6

    I think you are correct to characterise the speech as the start of shifting the narrative. Take the recent announcement of local government reforms for example. This is characterised as limiting rates rises and excessive salaries, and focusing on basic services first, messages that will resonate with a great number of people. The outcome may be different, the motivations may be ideologocal, but the messaging will connect. These Tories seem to get that they are primarily politicians whereas too many in Labour seem to think they are in a perpetual policy workshop.

    • Colonial Viper 6.1

      These Tories seem to get that they are primarily politicians whereas too many in Labour seem to think they are in a perpetual policy workshop.


  7. Con 7

    If you haven’t read Giovanni Tiso’s latest, you should.

    This is what the abdication of leadership – both political and moral – will achieve over time.

  8. Blue 8

    We can’t say for certain that Labour is shifting to the centre until we see some policy. But the noises Shearer has been making so far do sound decidedly centrist.

    It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Labour is a centre-left party. It all comes down to the policy. That’s when we will find out what’s really going on.

    • Con 8.1

      But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …

    • Colonial Viper 8.2

      It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Labour is a centre-left party. It all comes down to the policy. That’s when we will find out what’s really going on.

      The version of “centre left” you are talking about would have been considered Right Wing Radicalism just 30 years ago.

  9. Peter Pumpkinhead 9

    We already have a centre left party – the Nats, and two communist parties, the Greens and you guys.

    Do what you will, it is all irrelevent and what’s worse, immoral.

    If you are aiming for politics, Jimmeh, its worth noting that you have described your target audience as being distinctly:

    “Labour allowed itself to be painted by the Nats as for minorities and the vulnerable. Absolutely we are. But we are also for everyone. An overwelming majority of New Zealanders don’t earn enough to live fulfilling lives. Labour is for them also..”

    You are saying you are for minorities, the vulnerable, and the poor?
    How are these things defined?

  10. KJT 10

    It would be nice if Labour did shift back towards the centre.
    Instead of, further, towards the radical right.

  11. ad 11

    The speechwriter John Pagani has a lot to answer for, principally in lost opportunity, because the speech largely forgot to address:

    (a) the current Government’s:

    – Comprehensive reform of the entire state sector
    – Absence of a political plan or an economic developmetn plan
    – Inability to make a visible difference in anyone’s lives, particularly in tax cuts
    – Poor response to Christchurch recovery and rebuild, particularly with a Japanese comparator from the same time

    (b) the purpose of Labour government within the state and the country:

    – The role of business within Government, and Government within business (other than the usual platitudes about innovation), and the limits to this
    – The purpose of an engaged social democracy, as against turning the country into one giant cost-focussed business
    – In the absence of a vision that’s he’s so afraid of, at least the time horizon for making a visible difference to New Zealanders’ lives
    – The role of cities, since they dominate how most of New Zealand lives
    – His ability to work with the Greens, since they are permanent feature in the political landscape now
    – Whether in fact he can lead a Labour Party without any organised labour, without the teachers, and without beneficiaries (collectviely better known as the core voting and activist and funding base of the entire party), since he spends most of his time alienating them

    (c) Any recognition that he stands on the shoulders of giants of previous Labour administrations the foundations of which actuallu built most of what is positive and progressive in New Zealand.

    The left-right debate is immaterial when set against whether it was a speech that asserted clear and bold leadership that excited people across the country. That’s the immediate measure of success.

    I await the next round of polls for that measure.

  12. Kevin 12

    Text of David Shearers March 15 speech:


    In his speech David indicated a desire to move on from an earlier Goff promise of a $5000 tax free zone, that in itself signals that Labour is refocussing from a tax driven stimulus package onto a more centrist philosophy of improved educational opportunities and greater self determination ie less welfare dependence.

    • Colonial Viper 12.1

      a more centrist philosophy of improved educational opportunities and greater self determination ie less welfare dependence.

      How is having more degree qualified unemployed people with big student debts going to reduce welfare dependence?

  13. fatty 13

    “Or am I young and optimistic?”

    Optimism sounds like aspiration to me…which is also too close to Paula Bennett’s sickness of delusion for me.
    Its time to be critical, and that means being critical of Shearer, being critical of centrism and being critical of our society in general.

    You don’t fix a broken car by improving the parts that are working.

  14. fatty 14

    ***Although don’t be too critical of David Shearer…my last post got deleted and now I have to prove I am not a robot in order to post my opinion***

    Perhaps my next post should mention how Shearer is a nice guy and has a smile and wave that is up there with John Key’s…

  15. Macro 15

    No Labour doesn’t need to shift to the centre –
    They are already there! They ceased to be a party of the left long ago.
    They had the opportunity under Helen Clark to more back to their roots – made a feeble attempt when first elected (and when they truly had a mandate to do so). The rest of the time they spent trying to stay in power.
    What a load of apologetic tripe.

  16. queenstfarmer 16

    Why Labour is not shifting to the centre

    That’s the title of your post, but you don’t seem to have actually provided any reason why it isn’t.

    Labour under Shearer is clearly moving to the centre. He’s walked back the high-earner tax, the CGT-as-a-cash-cow tax, signalled that CGT revenue could be used to lower other taxes, dropped the $5,000 tax free idea, dropped the GST-free vegetable nonsense, continues to refuse to clearly side with the wharfies, signalled a focus on teacher performance and suggested a tightening of welfare policy. All good things that clearly evidence a move away from ideologically left positions.

    So on what basis is there not a clear shift to the center?

  17. coolas 17

    I’m with Macro and others on this – Labour no longer champions the working class as evidenced by its silence in the POA dispute. This is an issue of capitalist destruction of workers. But the polls probably show support for management. I wish they’d stop making up policy through polling and have some ethnic. As Warren Buffet famously said, ‘there’s a war going on (between haves and have-nots) and we’re winning.’ Labour should be firmly the party of the working class which means a graduated scale of high taxation of excess individual wealth and a program of re-distribution in health, education and training, and meaningful job creation by direct investment in industry and manufacturing.

    Shearer’s much awaited speech was a mish-mash of platitudes and so like John Key’s ‘aspirational’ diatribe I can’t help thinking the Labour boffins have adopted his approach as the winning formula.

    ‘Young and optimistic?’ Lucky boy! I’m old and pessimistic that Labour have sold their soul for the price of power.

  18. George D 18

    Prove it.

    • coolas 18.1

      POA dispute. You show me where Labour is defending the workers against ‘contracting out’ which breaks the power of collective bargaining; a fundamental tool in securing better working conditions, hard fought for by early Labour Governments. Workers rights should be the ‘soul’ of the Labour party but anti-unionism is popular right now so Labour are silent. Get it. Policy by popularism not principle.

      • Jimmy Reid 18.1.1

        Yes because this is anti-worker. We’re not helping unions at all with this policy:

        As a minimum, Labour will extend the right to organise and collectively bargain to contractors who are primarily selling their labour, as well as ensuring an effective and cheap disputes resolution procedure.

        An Industry Standard Agreement will be a collective agreement representing the employment „standards‟ in the particular industry, agreed in the first instance between unions and employer organisations in the defined industry. Through the Industry Standard Agreement, these standards would be „extended‟ to all workers in the industry, providing a set of minimum pay and conditions, based on genuine negotiations in other parts of the industry.

        Labour will repeal the National Government‟s unfair laws where workers can be fired without cause in their first 90 days of employment, and the restrictions on the access for workers to their unions in the workplace.

        Labour will restore reinstatement as the primary remedy when an employee has been unjustifiably dismissed, along with the test of justification.

        Labour will amend the Holidays Act to 2008 settings to protect the rights of workers to time off for rest and recreation and ensure that all NZ workers have access to 11 days off on pay for recognised public holidays, including Anzac and Waitangi Day.

        Labour will strengthen collective bargaining by amending the Employment Relations Act to provide greater legislative support, including multi-employer collective bargaining.

        Labour will enable unions and employers to set up systems in which all workers contribute to the benefits of enterprise and multi-enterprise bargaining.

        Labour will defend decent jobs against outsourcing and reduced terms and conditions by providing for the right to strike when a collective agreement is in force where the employer makes a significant proposal for restructuring or outsourcing that in effect renders the collective agreement ineffective.

        Labour will provide certainty for employers and employees in situations of redundancy by implementing the recommendations of the 2008 Ministerial Advisory Group report on redundancy and restructuring.

        Labour will ensure that workers employed in precarious forms of employment (such as labour hire, casual employment and contracting) are given similar rights to those in more traditional forms of employment.

        Labour will also investigate and implement best practice statutory support and legal rights for dependent contractors, including minimum wage protection and other rights.

        Labour will repeal the National Government‟s changes to the Employment Relations Act in regard to workers in the film and video production industries.


        • coolas

          ‘Labour will extend the right to organise and collectively bargain to contractors who are primarily selling their labour’

          Am I missing something here?

          Contracting is the creation of a ‘market-place’ for employers to pick and choose labour on demand – workers as just another resource to be got at the lowest price. Do you really think an employer will choose a worker who belongs to an organisation that collectively bargains over one who does not?

          Show me where Labour intends to make it compulsory for all workers to join organisations that collectively bargain, because only then can you say Labour sincerely represents the best interests workers. Otherwise Labour are supporting the ‘divide and rule’ attitude towards workers, amply demonstrated by the POA dispute.

          All I’m saying is stick to the principles/ethics. There’s a war going on between rich and poor and I want to see the Labour party unequivocally come out on the side of the poor, not this softly, softly, let’s not upset the middle class, swing voters, who aspire to be rich approach.

        • KJT

          Where is the restoration of the right to withdraw your labour, including in support of other workers.

          A freedom the parties of “individual freedom” were very quick to remove
          Without that, all the other stuff is a waste of time.
          Fixing the fuckups of the last 30 years will not happen by tinkering around the edges!

          You are correct. Labour is not moving to the right.

          They are already there!

        • rosy

          Hate to say it Jimmy… but that is so last year. It’s what they’re going to go into the next election that we need to know. Shearer has indicated that all policies are up for grabs, so at the moment we can’t say where Labour stands.

  19. Populuxe1 19

    Labour is shifting to the centre – not an impartial ideological centre, but the populist centre. National’s victory in the last two elections show’s that what the electorate considers “mainstream” has taken a big step to the right. I don’t like it, but it’s Realpolitik.

    • Colonial Viper 19.1

      The electorate hasn’t taken a big step to the Right. This is not about a change in peoples’ politics.

      Its about a change in who participates in politics. And who doesn’t, any more. And basically the working class and the underclass cant be fucked turning out for Labour any more.

      • Populuxe1 19.1.1

        Is your understanding of political theory really that naive? People’s politics change all the time depending on their circumstances (hint: not everyone is a dogmatic classical Marxist supported by their wife’s money). Society is in constant flux. Especially in uncertain times of crisis, people instinctively (if irrationally) move to the Right. The vast majority of the electorate are ideologically in the vicinity of whatever is perceived to be the centre and very few are rabid ideologues like you, or ACT.

        And basically the working class and the underclass cant be fucked turning out for Labour any more.

        Au contraire – their lack of engagement will lead to them being fucked like they’ve never been fucked before.

        • Colonial Viper

          I’m supported by my wife’s parents’ money thanks. Details are important.

          Especially in uncertain times of crisis, people instinctively (if irrationally) move to the Right.

          During the Great Depression the NZ people voted Savage in.

          • Populuxe1

            …And Germany voted Nazi when their economy collapsed and the Soviets threatened. And Thatcher and Reagan were largely boosted to power by the Cold War.

            • Colonial Viper

              So were you referring to German politics or UK politics? I personally thought we were talking about the character of the NZ people in desperate and uncertain times, so I gave you a NZ example.

              • Populuxe1

                Why would we be any different? Are you so addled that you think us to be closer to the angels than the beasts? But have it your way: Muldoon.

            • Con

              During the Great Depression the French got rid of one government through civil unrest and elected a radical left Popular Front in its place.
              In the United States, the New Deal was clearly a dramatic turn to the left.
              Note also that in Germany the Great Depression saw the rise of the extreme left PKD as well as the Nazi Party. The Nazis never obtained a majority popular vote; they first led a minority government, and later established their dictatorship through a coup d’etat.

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