Politics: Labouring At Reconstruction

Red Alert is actually pinkish. But it has energy. And it has got the blue brigade’s attention.
Red Alert is the Labour MPs’ blog. New backbenchers started it. MPs pay for it out of their own pockets. The leadership doesn’t control it.
It’s not exactly outrageous. But it is read by widening audience and by parliamentary press gallery journalists. It is step into the Obama age of communication.
Obama organised his Democrat presidential nomination campaign in new ways, greatly aided by enthusiastic and inventive Silicon Valley cyberspace types. He beat the Democrat Establishment and raised more money than the Democrat moneybags.
Early last year Labour talked about Obama and the opportunities the web offers to snare passing voters but did nothing. Nor did National.
Now Labour, which meets for its post-election conference this month, needs passing voters as it hasn’t since 1996, the year it got 28 percent and Helen Clark came within an ace of sinking without trace.
That requires it to reconnect and reconstruct.
It needs to rebuild its organisation. It appointed new secretary in August to go with new president Andrew Little of the Engineers Union. The support base must be rebuilt, though it is not in such disrepair as when it last lost office in 1990.
Besides numbers, this requires inventing new ways of involving people in ways other than through subscription membership. One developed in 2008 was the Drinking Liberally network which is cyber-organised but meets in person, with speakers from inside and outside Labour.
The successful Mt Albert by-election campaign – managed by John Pagani, then Jim Anderton’s press secretary – gave the party credibility with activists. It also reminded MPs of the reward from face-to-face contact. Leader Phil Goff is keen on that, to “listen” and to “reconnect” with voters who deserted.
The second level of reconstruction is in strategy. Labour’s risk is to repeat National’s failure after its loss of office in 1999 to fully acknowledge defeat – that is, to focus on tactics to win in 2011 at cost of strategic preparation to be durable sixth Labour government.
A win in 2011 is not impossible, but is unlikely. But even if Labour wins then, successful capitalisation on National errors and bad luck and too hasty policy reformulation risks Labour carrying on where it left off in 2008 when changed circumstances require changed policy approaches, with focus on 2018, not 2008.
Clark’s cabinets were baby-boomer cabinets. Many of her ministers are still in driving positions, including at the top.
The government meanwhile is in transition to the next generation. In the electorate baby-boomers and older are fewer than half the voters and will be smaller proportion election by election.
Labour has bright, younger MPs who can redefine Labour as post-baby-boomer party. Goff’s transitional challenge is to bring these people through and nudge baby-boomers aside. Expect some to take the hint, though he won’t push them.
It is this rising generation which will do the party’s third reconstruction: its ideas.
This is hard to do after long period in office. National didn’t shake off the 1990s until John Key took over in 2006. It needs fresh minds.
Labour has the makings. It has vigorous policy council, reinvigorated in 2006 under Phil Twyford, now an MP. Outside the party there are large numbers of sympathisers with ideas.
And there is big cohort of next-generation MPs, who say Goff is encouraging them. standout example is the sometimes prickly Charles Chauvel, who has smartly got on top of the complexities of climate change and puts an acute legal brain to the service of members in drafting their bills. These younger MPs are more flexible than their elders.
And there are smart thinkers in the wider membership. theme which has been developing for some time among younger Labour people is to draw on international new thinking and local initiative to redefine and modernise social democracy. As one puts it: “It is my generation that can solve the major crises of our time because we are free of the baggage of the past.”
This does not mean overturning Labour values and principles but redeveloping them so they make sense to the rising generation – going beyond the current beavering to adjust policy in “work streams”. Many 1980s’ and 1990s’ arguments which coloured Labour in the 2000s are unimportant to the under-40s.
That is some reconstruction challenge. It may take Labour while.

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and NZ Management’s regular political columnist.

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