Labour has had a good start to 2012. Helped by a government shifting to the right — and looking a little shifty to boot — the task of introducing the new leadership to the public has begun, and the party's organisational review is engaging members and supported in the kind of stimulating, challenging conversation we all hoped for.
David Shearer's first big speech was ok too. He talked about the right things; he talked about them in the right way.
The right thing to start with is the economy, because economic change is at the core of what Labour exists to do. Solving the great challenges of sustainable environments and more equal societies is in huge part a task of choosing and shaping markets, both productive and financial.
Education was well stated because it is integral to the development of citizens as people, and helps with the economy too. And in the parts dealing with Education, David tackled another issue Labour needs to think through and address carefully: the fact that some people we would like to support us think that we are as a party more concerned with the people who work in public services than in the public they are meant to serve.
The staffing at parliament is being sorted, caucus is well on the way to gelling after the leadership contest, and the review is providing people with the first chance since I joined in 1997 to have a good, hard and honest look at ourselves.
All in all, an ok start. Most of it is pointing in the right direction.
That's good, because Q2 is going to be a heck of a lot harder.
The biggest test will be in our response to the Budget, due in late May. National will continue with its austerity drive. Labour should challenge the logic of that, without committing to anything. We don't know what the economy will be doing in 2014, and can't define our policy on that this year.
Hard stuff. Get it wrong and you are either going to tie your hands behind you for the rest of the term, or be accused of having no alternative.
Other things will be the party's six regional conferences, where members will scrutinise the draft proposals for organisational change from the review, and start debating our policy framework for 2014. The scandals and fights that are bubbling up from National will also be important to handle right.
Another hard task is the construction of a longer term take on Labour's story.
It does not take a political savant to acknowledge that at last year's election, people were not clear about what Labour stood for, whose side we were on, or how our specific policies tackled the country's problems to improve people's lives.
We have to be much better at that this term. I know that the new leadership team knows that.
It's not easy because it isn't entirely obvious how you resolve one central dilemma. The policy framework was about right, but the public thrashed us. Shifts in policy are an easy signal that a party has changed. We have to convince the public that we get it that we lost last time and that we have learned the lesson,
That connects to another tricky issue; being clear about why we lost and what the lesson is.
Getting that right is a precursor to getting the narrative right.
Initial signs are ok, but the speeches David has lined up over coming months will show how it's going. He will also need to think about different ways of building that narrative; one way that Labour in NZ hasn't used before would be to consult supporters and members directly about some options for this.
Overall though, things are going well. A good first quarter done; a challenging second quarter looms.