Span has been doing some posts (link to the latest here) on the future of the left, with the latest looking at the question of where young left wingers with some energy might choose to engage in parliamentary politics, an assessment of the current parties and options for how to go about building a more radical vehicle for parliamentary politics.
This gives me thought again about Labour's strategy. Since about 1993 Labour has been following the third way strategy that has been best analysed in the UK. The key components of that locally have been:
- Emphasis on the connection between social justice and economic development
- Moderate political positioning, in touch with voters not activists
- Pragmatic policy lines in terms of public spending and the market/community boundary
- An avoidance of 'reform' as opposed to consolidation in most areas of policy
- Incremental change and routing around, rather than challenging, opposition to particular policies
It has been a very successful strategy for Labour. The party has rebuilt from a very low share of the vote of 28% in 1996, to three consecutive election wins around 40%. The message of moderation, and of investment in public services instead of cutting taxes, has been an electoral winner. It came in the wake of lurches and extremist reform from the other side of politics that took National two terms to start to disown.
Now many people in Labour and of course in the further left would like to see a more progressive politics more quickly. Many others would argue that to do so would leave the electorate behind and to simply deliver power into regressive hands, to no purpose.
I have sympathy for both sides in the debate, but tend in my head towards the latter position. If one wants to achieve more progressive political change, you have to secure changes to the political culture, and methods of campaigning and engaging with the electorate to do that.
Labour's analysis is that gradual, unthreatening change, combined with demonstrated results of life getting better for ordinary people, can help build support for progressive measures. And in the context of a snapshot in 1999 compared with a snapshot of today, there have been some pretty good improvements in a range of areas (labour law, tertiary student support, hospital throughput, primary health care, early childhood rollout, fewer people on benefits, and many more).
That progress, judging on the electoral results, have been on the edge of what could happen. Labour in New Zealand hasn't had the advantage of a FPP electoral system that could deliver crushing majorities to the government, so the UK argument 'could have done more, faster' doesn't really apply here. One can make a very rational argument that if Labour had moved further and faster in a progressive direction in any of the terms in government, it would not have been able to win in the next election.
A reasonable counter to this, on the other hand, is that some of the key policy lines which carried Labour through the 2005 poll (interest free student loans, a large expansion of Working for Families etc) were examples of bolder, less cautious initiatives, that definitely helped not hurt the party's electoral chances, as well as making policy a bit more progressive than it would otherwise have been.
So that's Labour's story. The question I have for Span and for others who would like to see a more aggressively-prosecuted agenda is, what would you do instead?
- What campaigning methods and communication styles do you think would develop public support for more progressive politics?
- What key policy planks would you propose to distinguish yourselves from the moderate left?
- How would you interact with the moderate left? A conciliatory or a hostile approach?
I'm sure there are many more questions. Interested in the views of those who define themselves as left of Labour. Seems to me that in the absence of good ideas on the above and other questions, it is hard to proceed faster - no matter how much we might want to.