Amidst the banter and inevitable backslapping, there will assuredly be reflection on the remarkable Labour Prime Ministers New Zealand has had over the years. Savage, Fraser, Kirk, Lange and more recently Clark come to mind.
For me, the remarkable thing about the Labour Party, which attracted me to join it while still at school, was its ability to continually adapt to the circumstances of the time to promote a new vision for the New Zealand of the future. Savage and Fraser expanded the incipient welfare state Seddon’s Liberals had ushered in during the 1890s to meet the needs of a society recovering from the 1930s Depression. Kirk and subsequently Lange captured the yearning for national identity of the restless baby boom generation and beyond. Lange and Clark oversaw the painful economic adjustment necessary to shift New Zealand from Muldoon’s Gdansk shipyard of the 1980s to the modern dynamic economy of today. Differing circumstances and differing challenges, but the constant was the capacity to develop responses attuned to the time.
Sadly, today’s Labour Party is but a shadow of its bold predecessors. There is no sense of future direction or purpose, and even in its rare positive moments, the Party’s best offerings seem to be a hankering for yesteryear. The boldness in politics is now coming from the National Party – formed primarily to oppose the first Labour government – with no more striking example than its Budget decision this year to lift basic benefit payments, the first such upward adjustment in over 40 years(including the 3rd to 5th Labour Governments). Labour, the traditional friend of the beneficiary, was left gasping in its wake.
Labour’s challenge today is to recover its soul and its place. In this post market age, there is a still a role for a radical reforming party of the left, if it is prepared to be bold. There is the opportunity to pull together the threads of the Labour heroes and promote a new commitment based around strengthening New Zealand’s national identity through constitutional and social reform, and encouraging diversity. There is still a place for a progressive party promising a new, more co-operative economic approach in today’s globally digitally and free trade connected world. And there is still a place for a progressive party to promote new, innovative approaches to education and social services.
But rather than grasp these opportunities, Labour has become predeterminedly negative. While it supports a new New Zealand flag, it opposes the current referendum process, essentially because it is a National Prime Minister’s idea. Its approach to economic policy is stalled because it cannot make up its mind on the Trans Pacific Partnership. Its stigmatising of people with Chinese sounding names buying property in Auckland has robbed it of any credibility in the diversity stakes, and its capacity to champion meaningful education reform is zero while it remains the plaything of the PPTA.
Labour’s great leaders of the past all succeeded because in differing ways they snapped themselves out of the prevailing straightjackets of the time to offer something fresh and dynamic.
Among the canapes and the congratulations this week, there ought to be many still in the Labour Party thinking about these points.
If not, there may not be a similar dinner in 20 years time.