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Dunne's Weekly: Labour's Journey Of A Thousand Miles Begins

Over 2,500 years ago the legendary ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu observed that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

This week Labour began its journey of a thousand miles towards political rehabilitation. Its first step was the correct one to endorse Chris Hipkins as party leader. To do otherwise would have been extremely foolhardy.

Only Hipkins has the mana to manage a battered and bruised Labour Caucus as it begins its long journey to recovery. There is no-one else in the Caucus with the capability of doing that. Hipkins’ retention was the sensible and obvious move, and the fact it was carried out with a minimum of fuss is a positive for Labour.

Similarly, with the elevation of Carmel Sepuloni to be the new deputy leader. While doubts remain about her policy record in government, her confirmation ends the awkward position of 2020 and 2023 where Kelvin Davis was passed over to be the Deputy Prime Minister, while remaining the party’s deputy leader. Sepuloni’s appointment has resolved that and is a vote of confidence in her.

The unanimous endorsement of the Hipkins/Sepuloni team sends a clear message that they will be the duo to oversee Labour’s rebuild, in sharp contrast to the turmoil of Labour’s 2009-2017 period in Opposition when it churned through five different leaders. However, that is not to say that this will be the pairing that takes Labour into the next election.

What happens next will be largely over to Hipkins. While he says he intends staying in the job for the full Parliamentary term, he could hardly have said anything else at this stage. What is more likely is that over the next eighteen months to two years he will quietly reassess his situation and long-term aspirations. It would be no surprise then to see him follow the pattern of other former Prime Ministers and decide to step down from Parliament altogether, at or before the next election.

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But as with every step Labour took during its time in government things are never as quite straightforward as they might seem. In this case, the first positive step on the leadership was not matched by nearly as sure-footed a start to the wider question of what the party now stands for and how its future message and appeal to the electorate will be shaped.

Hipkins’ first statement – that Labour would be reviewing all its policies and starting from a clean slate position – was positive enough and the right line to take. But he quickly allowed himself to be trapped into having to explain whether that meant capital gains and wealth taxes – which he had ruled out only a few months ago – were now back on Labour’s agenda.

In short, he made a hash of the explanation. Instead of saying Labour was beginning a ground-up review of all its policies and that it was premature (and silly) to be talking about specific policies at this stage, before the review had even begun, let alone been completed, Hipkins “clean slate” line quickly became these taxes are back on the table.

And that creates huge problems for Hipkins – how can he credibly say these taxes are back on the agenda when Labour is in Opposition, when he so emphatically ruled them out a little while ago when in government? Even the CTU’s economist, usually amongst the most fanatical and uncritical of Labour’s supporters, has warned that before committing to new taxes Labour first needs to establish the case for them, something, by implication, it has not done so far. Instead, all Labour has done has been to give the incoming government a free weapon to continue to beat it with.

This is not to say that tax policy will not be a critical aspect of Labour’s review, nor that it does not need to address capital gains and wealth taxes as part of that. It does – the advocacy for such from future natural partners, the Greens and Te Pati Māori ensures that. But any moves in that direction should be the consequences of a wider policy programme (the Greens, for example, set out very clearly the specific policies they would introduce from the proceeds of a wealth tax), and not just a policy one-off the way Hipkins made them sound.

Nor does Labour need to rush this process. The early confirmation of its leadership gives Labour time and space for a thorough and careful policy review. In any case, the reality of Opposition means that Labour will not be politically relevant for the next eighteen months to two years (unless either ACT or New Zealand First feel compelled at some point to abandon the Luxon government), so it has plenty of time on its side.

In that period, alongside its policy positions, Labour also needs to review its personnel. Ironically, its election drubbing is a partial help in that regard. Half its Caucus now come from the party list, which means they can be replaced without the need for by-elections, should any of them choose to stand down. Already, Andrew Little has announced he will do so, and questions remain about the futures of Grant Robertson, Kelvin Davis, Willie Jackson, and others.

All these MPs could quickly go and be replaced by those next on the list – all first or second term MPs defeated this year. But that highlights another of Labour’s problems. All those of talent from Labour’s 2017 and 2020 intakes are already in Parliament, thanks to this year’s list. Those next on the list and likely to return if current MPs stand down are unlikely to add anything to Labour’s firepower in Opposition.

So, as Labour’s thousand-mile journey begins, it will need to avoid being swept along by the political circumstances of the moment and show instead extraordinary patience and stamina. Only then has it a chance of success.

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