“Renewal” - The role of Young Labour
Tony Milne Youth Vice President New Zealand Council (NZLP)
Saturday 8 April 2006
“Renewal” - The role of Young Labour in a third term Labour-led Government
My name is Tony Milne. For those of you who don’t know me, I stumbled into politics from a background of a working class family in Invercargill who demonstrated little interest in politics. In fact, like most kiwis, avoided it like the plague!
I’m the last person I would have thought that by age 24 would have twice stood for Parliament for Labour as its youngest candidate, getting the best result for Labour in Rakaia in over 20 years despite the trend against us in rural seats.
I’m the last person I would have thought who by age 24 would have been on the Governing Board of the Labour Party and part of the 2005 Labour Party campaign team.
I’m the last person I would have thought that by age 24 would be working in Parliament for the Senior Government Whip, Tim Barnett.
But here I am and I’m please and proud to be at my seventh year of Young Labour conferences! Here to help give us a contact for our discussions over the next two days.
I’m going to talk about 3 key challenges in relation to the crucial topic of renewal.
My overall theme is that we as Young Labour need to start being less young and more Labour!
The way to achieve our aims is to shape and influence the wider Labour Party and Labour movement. We must be the change that we want to see.
Our forums should be party-wide forums.
Our campaigns should be party-wide campaigns.
Our policy should be party-wide policy.
Before explaining the 3 key challenges I’m going to ask why we need to renew and explain why I’m not going to talk about personnel change.
The first question is – why renew? Why change a winning formula?
It’s a fair question.
The dominant media narrative (one that we must challenge) that this is a dying government wouldn’t be so vomit inducing if there was some substance to the claim.
The fifth Labour government has been the most successful since Michael J Savage’s first Labour Government over 60 years ago.
We have a popular and competent PM who is the second longest serving leader of the Labour Party and the first ever to win three terms in government.
We have a united caucus.
We have a political programme that the New Zealand public is broadly happy with.
We have just won an historic third term with 97,000 more votes than we won in 2002, which was more than we got in 1999.
And 6 months into our third term we’re averaging around 43% in the political polls, with support for the Labour/Green coalition just over 50% in most polls.
So why renew?
It’s my conviction that we must renew if we are to win in 2008 and beyond and ensure our vision, our policies and our values become dominant in New Zealand in the long term.
As Helen said in her speech from the thrown; Labour doesn’t exist simply to manage the status quo.
In 1999, our country was going up shit creek without a paddle.
Families were suffering.
The economy was being mismanaged.
There was a lack of pride in New Zealand and New Zealanders.
This manifested in a variety of ways.
Families were suffering. · High Youth Suicide rates – our kids were knocking themselves off at a faster rate then dies on our roads. · High Crime rates – people were stealing cars, breaking into homes etc. · Benefit cuts and market rents – a redistribution of a Billion dollars from the poorest New Zealanders to support a Billion dollars of tax cuts for the richest. Don’t let National tell you they don’t believe in redistribution! · Out on control student debt.
The economy was being mismanaged. · High Unemployment – people were losing their jobs and lining up in dole cues.
There was a lack of pride in New Zealand and New Zealanders. · Just 5% of music on our radios was NZ music.
Today, after just 6 ½ years of Labour Government families are supported, The economy is being better managed and transformed, and there is pride in New Zealand and New Zealanders.
Families supported · Lower youth suicide rates (but still not low enough) · 20 year crime low · Income related rents and support for those who need it most – low-middle income NZ Families · A fairer student loans scheme
Economic better managed · Lowest unemployment in the world – people are getting jobs.
Pride in NZ and New Zealanders · 20% of music on our radios is NZ music.
But now there are many new challenges, and if we don’t renew we become managers rather than leaders. We become stale. And inevitably we get booted out of Government.
And under MMP that doesn’t have to happen. And this is the narrative we have to share with the NZ public and media.
If we manage MMP well, in Peter Davis words to our Summer School we can move crab like - a coalition to the right one term, coalition to the left the term after. While gradually, over the long term, shifting the country in the direction we’d like it to go: a fairer, more tolerant, more prosperous New Zealand.
And we must do that renewal while in Government, which is a more significant challenge than renewal in opposition, which is where we don’t want to be. And I don’t mean renewal of personnel – which is my second point.
I’m not going to talk about a clean out of MPs. Our media like to wet their pants in anticipation of a Michelle Boag like clean out of Labour MPs. They underplay the importance of caucus unity and experience.
But most importantly, what the media fails to understand is that renewal goes much deeper than personnel change. It’s about building a mass movement, a progressive community, an ideas infrastructure. Laying the foundations for a progressive New Zealand in the long term.
Which is why I’m going to talk about Party-led renewal, and about the 3 key challenges where Young Labour can play a leadership role in the Party.
Firstly, the need for a mass movement closely connected to our community.
Secondly, leading the Party policy on the next generation of issues and developing sexy campaigns where we can build a progressive coalition – working with other parties and new social movements.
And thirdly building the ‘ideas’ infrastructure.
1. Young Labour needs to help play a role in building a mass movement closely connected to our community.
We are told by the media, by many academics, by politicians that declining Party membership is an international trend that can’t be reversed. We’ll I say bullshit to that!
It is fundamental to successful social democratic politics to have broad participation in politics, civil society, in people taking an interest in community.
But membership of the Labour Party is just one part of building a mass progressive movement. Many young people are getting involved in politics, but choosing to be active though new social movements and singe-issue campaigns like the thousands of school kids out protesting against youth rates.
There is a massive grassroots progressive community in New Zealand.
The 40,000 people involved in forest and bird, the tens of thousands of people involved in Greenpeace, hundreds of thousands of Union members, students, peace activists, foreign aid campaigners, make poverty history campaigners, women’s groups. And the hundreds of thousands or ordinary New Zealanders who believe in social justice, a clean green environment, in owning your own home, an independent foreign policy, and in public provision of health and education.
What there isn’t, is a co-ordinated progressive community with a focused progressive agenda and a way for them to communicate and co-ordinate.
So my first challenge is this: · Increase Labour’s membership. Don’t accept the bullshit that we can’t reverse the decline in Party membership. · Start laying the foundations for a connected, focused progressive community by developing closer links with New Social Movements and single-issue campaigns.
2. Closely connected to the first challenge is the second – leading the Party on the next generation of issues and developing sexy campaigns where we can work with other progressive parties and New Social Movements.
Young Labour needs to lead the Party in developing policy and campaigns on the next generation of issues.
New Zealand will become a republic. The stats show younger people more and more disconnected from great, great, great grandmother England (as fond as we may be of her, for most she’s been six feet under for some time).
But the longer the campaign takes to get momentum, the longer it will take to happen. It was distasteful watching 121 MPs swear allegiance to the Queen of England after the election. I didn’t feel like a proud New Zealander.
We need to start leading the public and party debate on that issue.
And how about this as a radical thought – maybe becoming a republic is the way for all New Zealanders (Maori, Pakeha, and every other ethnic group) to move forward together?
Japan is killing hundreds of endangered whales for domestic consumption, and outrageously, for dog food. Whales are for sight-seeing, not sushi, and certainly not dog food.
Abolishing youth rates and the ability to bash kids and get away with it are issues where the Labour Party doesn’t have an agreed policy position.
Youth rates are unfair. They mean that one group of people (young people) get paid less for doing the same work as others. Big business argues it will cost young people their jobs. I doubt it. But even it is true, young people are saying that’s the price they are willing to pay for being treated equally.
And how family friendly is it that parents can bash their kids (almost to death in some cases) and get away with it.
It’s a national tragedy and international embarrassment that we have a law that gives parents the right to whip kids with electric chord and bash them with bits of 2 by 4 and get away with it. It’s a law that makes me ashamed to be a New Zealander.
And we wonder why it is that we have one of the highest levels of child killing and abuse in the world?
Removing section 59 of the crimes act won’t mean that parents who give their kids a soft smack will be prosecuted – the police have said so – but it will mean that parents who bash their kids don’t have a legal defense to get away with it.
Our country is changing. We are a much more diverse community than we once were. There is what I call a new New Zealand – an emerging majority diversity coalition. What does Labour have to say about the impact of this on our economy, national identity, interfaith issues?
The right has been leading the debate on tax cuts. But there’s a broader argument. Do our current tax levels allow us to invest in world-class public services that New Zealanders demand? Do we need tax cuts for low-middle income earners? Can we become a leading economy without the necessary public investment in education, science, research, technology, health and infrastructure?
Other countries are devolving power and service delivery to the local level. Our generation expects much more choice and diversity – and not just in private services like mobile phones and internet providers, but inevitably in public service provision. The rights solution is to privatize and create user-pays. We know that that harms the most vulnerable, and means that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Is decentralization our answer to the ‘choice’ issue?
We have one of the highest prison levels in the Western world despite record crime lows. Is there a better way to deal with criminals so that they don’t go to prison and become better criminals? Can we build a public and political consensus in the area of crime and prison? Is it widely understood that employment and decent support for low income people and those on benefits is the best crime prevention strategy around?
New Zealand needs to re-assert itself as a leader in the world on the environment. New Zealanders feel the environment in our blood and bones and marrow. But we’ve got a cancer; we’re filling our rivers, lakes and air with crap and waste. Can we develop solutions to climate change and engage on the broader international stage – convince our Aussie mates to get real on this issue? Can we think long term (100 years out) and take bold and brace steps on rail and subways in Auckland? Can we, like other countries, have a bold 100% renewable energy policy by 2020, a zero waste policy by 2020, cut the number of cars by 2020 – and implement polices to get us there?
If there is one category where New Zealand should be the number one in the world, it should be education. From early childhood education, to primary education, to secondary education, to tertiary education. NZ should be number one.
In the long term, it is the only way we can expect to be in the top half of the OECD economic indicators.
It’s the only way we can expect to have the best health system in the world.
It’s the only way to bring opportunity to the many.
My Mum left school at 15 with no qualifications and became a cleaner, then KFC workers. Dad left school at 16 to get a job at an abattoir. I’m the first in my extended family to go to University, so I know the value of education and the opportunities it brings. Education is what evens up life chances.
There is no more important priority than getting education right. And that might mean doing things unconventionally.
Could we develop specialist schools? Could we look at class times and timings of breaks? Could we double the number of teaches, double their pay, and half class sizes?
These are all important questions that need to be asked and answered.
Related to policy is campaigning.
The right in NZ has run joint campaigns on tax, crime, race and immigration. The centre left hasn’t be running their own joint campaigns.
So my second challenges to you are:
· Develop policy positions on key issues. · Support debate on issues where Labour could be leading the public debate. · Work within the Party for new policy to become Labour’s policy. · Pick sexy issues to campaign on, and work with other parties and new social movements on their campaigns.
3. The third key challenge is helping to build an ‘ideas’ infrastructure.
The right wing in America has spent the last 30 years investing heavily in the ideas infrastructure such as think tanks and media organizations. Their purpose is to convince working class people to vote against their own economic interests.
George Lackhoff’s book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” explains why and how this has happened, and has been working on his own small, but important, part of the progressive fight back – which is combating right win success at framing public debates. The right has been getting the media and public to talk about issues using the language and phrases they have a right wing bias.
The key way the right convinces working class people to vote against their own economic interest is by focusing the debate on other issues such as morals (gay marriage, abortion) or national security.
The same right wing approach has been imported into Australia politics, and at our last election we experienced it too. We also call it wedge politics – National’s focus on race issues (Treaty/Immigration) and opposition to Civil Union and the Gender Identity Bill.
We experienced it in the influence of the small but extreme exclusive Brethren Sect and their “push polling” for National in our provincial seats, and the small far right Business Round Table influence on National’s policy and campaign and use of words like “Mainstream NZ” and “Family values”.
This is specifically designed to get blue collar workers – particular men who would normally vote Labour – to vote National.
In New Zealand we need to start building and investing in our own response to this importing of American-led politics in New Zealand.
We have our own thinking to do. For example, What is the NZ Labour Party’s worldview (or ideology) in the 21st Century. New Zealand is an open economy and diverse society. Can we engage in an ideological debate on creating an indigenous Social Democracy in 21st Century New Zealand?
Who was it that created the welfare state, housing New Zealanders, public education for New Zealanders, health for New Zealanders, 40 hour working week?
Who is it today creating tax breaks for working families, 14 weeks paid parental leave for families, increasing the minimum wage for families, 4 weeks annual leave for families, early childhood education for families, increased suppernnuation for families, no interest on student loans for families, Civil Unions for families? Labour is the Family party without a doubt.
So my final big picture challenge to you is this: · Strongly encourage attendance at Summer School 2007 and get involved in organizing your local Winter School as a forum for big picture issues to be debated. · Sign-up to receive my ‘renewal’ e-mail alerts. They will keep you informed about the various renewal developments (there are some exciting things in the pipeline including a NZ Branch of the Fabians), creation of new forums for these discussions etc. · This includes a party-wide debating competition which I’m running this year. Get into a team, or go along and support those who are entering.
This challenge to you is a call to arms. There is much to be done and we each have a role we can play.
I’m optimistic about our chances in 2008. In many ways politics is a battle of wills. To win you have to want to win, and believe that you can.
Everyone in the Labour Party is focused on that task – from Cabinet, Caucus, NZ Council, Sector and every other level our Party is starting to humm.
Our members are more active immediately after this election than at any time I’ve been a member of the Party (since 2000).
But each of us, including me, often feels a strong sense of frustration at the speed of chance, and that our ideas whether policy , or structural, or campaign, aren’t being implemented.
There are two responses.
Moan a lot. Get despondent. Possible even give up and leave.
Or respond by talking and influencing those who are in a position to make a difference, and most importantly, be the change that you want to see.
If you see a problem, help fix it.
If you have an idea, just do it. Or find someone else who is passionat4e about it, and get them to take charge of doing it. Otherwise my message is simple, it won’t happen.
Don’t let internal barriers and structures get in your way and don’t waste your time trying to changer them, go around them.
If we can achieve the 3 challenges I’ve set out today – building a mass membership closely connected to our community, leading the Party on the next generation of policy challenges and sexy campaigns working with others, and helping develop an ideas infrastructure – then we’ll be a long way down the road of building a progressive New Zealand.
You don’t need much of a reminder about why we’re here. Picture the MPs on the two levels above us.
Don Brash and National wanted us to go to George Bush’s war on Iraq. What a mess Iraq is and a sad vindication of Labour and Helen Clarks decision not to go there.
National wants (even if they say otherwise after 20 years) to get rid of our iconic nuclear free legislation.
National wants us to abandon our role as a responsible international citizen by joining George Bush in abandoning Kyoto.
I wish you well for the rest of your conference. Your discussions this weekend could influence the Labour Party and Labour movement for many years to come.
Let’s look back in 20 years time on this conference and say “The 2006 Young Labour conference was a defining moment in the history of the Labour Party and Labour movement”.