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Gordon Campbell:On Labour’s current rethink of its identity

Gordon Campbell: On Labour’s current rethink of its identity

Labour goes into its two day Taupo retreat today with what has charitably been dubbed a ‘slow and careful journey’ to a new identity under the leadership of David Shearer. Certainly the man himself has laid out a pretty circuitous route to the Treasury benches, which will apparently be via Napier and Timaru :

He acknowledges Labour didn't do well in provincial parts of New Zealand at the election and he wants that to change. Mr Shearer says he'd like to head to places like Napier, Timaru, and New Plymouth.

According to RNZ, the caucus meeting in Taupo will be discussing the party’s strategies on welfare reform and the retirement age, but no immediate announcements on changes to Labour’s policy stances can be expected, post retreat.

If this is slow and careful to some, it also looks like unsure and tentative to others – and with no change from the former reliance on focus groups and polling before policy positions are taken.

This really isn’t good enough.

New Zealanders cannot afford to wait in line to meet David Shearer, one by one. By taking the slow and tentative approach, Shearer is going to let himself be defined by the parliamentary agenda that begins in early February. In other words, the early perceptions of him will be shaped by his opposing tack to the government’s timetable and agenda, and not through messages of his own devising.

Welfare reform will prove to be as much a test for Labour as the ports of Auckland dispute. Polling will be telling Labour that the public is widely in favour of getting tougher with beneficiary entitlements, while at the same time being just as disturbed by income inequality and child poverty.

Given the state of the job market, cracking down on beneficiaries at this time flies in the face of everything that Labour traditionally represents – yet here, as in Britain, Labour seems very interested in finding a way NOT to oppose welfare reform, while still credibly wringing its hands about the plight of those being dealt to harshly by the Tories.

Cue spin along the lines of : “If we seek greater accountability from those at the top, we must also expect it from those at the bottom too, yada yada …” Instead of defending adult entitlements head on, Labour will try to re-focus the debate as being one about child poverty and jobs. Opposing welfare reform per se will be left to the Greens.

Famously during the holiday break, Trevor Mallard linked on Red Alert to a call to rethink Labour policy on welfare reform, one written for the Guardian by British Labour politician Liam Byrne.

This is no new position by Byrne. Since February of last year for instance, Byrne has been calling for such a change :

Labour will today announce that it is to accept some of the government's key welfare savings next year, as the shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne declares that reforms need to move at the "very fastest" pace.

In his first major speech since his appointment last month, Byrne will pledge to accept £2.5bn of the planned £3.4bn savings – those parts that are intended to increase incentives to work, and that will spread the making of savings around the overall system. Echoing Tony Blair's declaration in 2002 that New Labour was "best what our boldest", Byrne will say that voters in his deprived Birmingham Hodge Hill constituency demand a rapid pace of reform.

"When you look at things from where I stand in Hodge Hill, you have to say we were at our best when we were bold Labour. But while the business of reform might never have stopped, we weren't driving permanently at top speed."

In language which may surprise some in Labour circles uneasy at the pace of the coalition's welfare reforms, he will add: "When you see the wasted potential every day; when you work with the children I serve, then you believe that no other pace of reform but the very fastest will do."

Get it done, and get it done quickly – and on the whole Labour in Britain supports the bits about creating incentives to work. Will Shearer take the same route?

The first sign he may do so ( or not) will hinge on whether he scraps the extension of tax credits to the beneficiary poor that Labour took into the last election, mainly as a way of defending its flank against the Greens.

Traditionally, Labour has been the champion of the working poor, and not (so much) the beneficiary poor – which was why the Clark government (and Michael Cullen in particular)drew the initial sharp distinction between the needy in employment and the needy on benefits when it fashioned Working for Families.

With the election now over, will Labour back away from this election-bid gambit of support for beneficiaries? Was it always – like the promise to remove GST from fruit and vegetables – just a temporary measure to shore up its left credentials?

Unfortunately, the easy “rethinking” of Labour’s positions almost all appear to entail shifting rightwards from the positions staked out for election purposes. Is this what Shearer and his advisers really plan to do? That would be hard to believe and difficult to stomach for the remaining party faithful – who, surely want him to tack left, not right.

Clearly, we still have a lot to learn yet about David Shearer. If anyone in Napier or Timaru spots him in the coming weeks, please phone home.


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