I am liking the narrative that Labour's key economic spokespeople have been advancing in the past few weeks.
David Parker got it right in a release from last week:
“A zero budget is what you get when you fail. We all know what happened in the aftermath of the last ‘zero budget’ – there were two credit downgrades and a greater than anticipated increase in debt.
“Bill English’s solution to his government’s failure to rebalance the economy away from speculation and into export-led growth is to cross his fingers and hope that the ‘austerity fairy’ will provide.
He is completely right. The winds of change are coming on macroeconomic policy. The Austerity Experiment has failed, but New Zealand's policy is to tighten incredibly fast. It will cost us jobs and growth, and ultimately steal hope from people who need it the most.
I have also been impressed with a speech that economic development spokesperson David Cunliffe gave on the weekend, available here.
Labour MPs need to do a lot more of what Cunliffe does with this speech: articulate what Labour's principles and values are, and be passionate in explaining why that turns out a vision and a plan for a much better country than what we have today.
I'd be delighted if we could get to the point where every Labour MP, candidate and activist was as articulate on this stuff as DC is. The speech is worth a read. Here are some bits that caught my eye:
This is the first of a series of speeches on economic development. I am going to start with the basics – why the invisible hand of the market failed us and why we need a clear and distinct Labour view on economics; why you can’t cut and sell your way out of an economic hole; and what a Labour economic development plan should contain. We need to be clear about the context before we can go on the policy journey.
I want to be clear from the outset that this speech represents my own views and does not pretend to represent overall Labour policy. All policies are being reviewed in the post-election period.
This is a nice way to set out some issues without committing the party to new policy. We are reflecting and reviewing but we can't do that in a vacuum: it has to be part of a conversation where we chuck ideas and thoughts out, and see what people think of them.
However, by the 1980s, the New Zealand economic system had grown clumsy and slow. Most people agreed that it was in need of reform. That's what most people wanted, economic reform. That is, they wanted the existing system, but they wanted it to function more smoothly, more efficiently and more fairly. They did not want it replaced with a system that simply handed over most of the wealth and power to rich people.
Yet, that’s what happened, and to our eternal shame, the Labour Party was the party that introduced many of the so-called economic reforms that have proved so disastrous.
The National Government that followed it took the experiment further; with the ‘Mother of All Budgets’ that savaged social services, more privatization and deregulation, and the odious Employment Contracts Act that set us on the path of becoming a low wage economy.
This is, to me, a nice summation by a senior Labour MP of why so many of us were uncomfortable with the legacy of the fourth Labour government in economic terms. It's clear, crisp and makes sense.
So how do these rogues [the self-interested neoliberal supporters who mainly gained personally from it, often through the media] get away with it?
The answer is twofold: on one hand, the news media has been a solid supporter of neo-liberalism.
Did you know, for example, that British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, regularly lunched with Rupert Murdoch, the far-right media boss? Tony, apparently, used to test which policies would be acceptable to Murdoch.
Thus we have a far-right media boss influencing the policies of what was supposed to be the party of the people. It’s shameful.
The second reason these rogues get away with it is because, as the Tony Blair example shows so clearly, the opposition parties, which are supposed to be the solution, too often become part of the problem.
When the right-wing party says that it’s going to cut your leg off, voters want the left-wing party to say that it’s not going to cut your leg off. Voters don't want to be told that the left-wing party is also going to cut your leg off, but cut it off a bit lower down and give you some anesthetic.
I think that’s a major reason that nearly one million voters deserted us at the last election. It wasn’t because we failed to communicate our policies. Quite the opposite. Those voters saw that our policies – with the exception of asset sales – were mostly the same as National’s. So we can’t really be surprised at the result.
This is interesting and important. I don't quite agree with David's characterisation of our policies as being largely the same as National's, but I do think that the voters mostly thought so. Some of our most important policy initiatives last term were out too late to get through to voters, or were poorly communicated (or both). The perception of similarity was clear - I got as all other candidates got, the word that "you guys are all the same".
Fact is we aren't, but the perception people have is what shapes their votes.
So then David focuses on his Economic Development stuff in how to proceed:
So where to from here? Let’s be absolutely clear – New Zealand cannot cut and sell its way to National’s so-called “brighter future”.
New Zealand cannot simply milk more cows and hope that commodity prices stay up.
Nor can we pretend that mining national parks won’t destroy our precious global brand.
National has no new ideas and no credible plan. It has laundry lists of actions, many of which take us in the wrong direction.
The reason is that they still fundamentally believe that some combination of the “invisible hand” of free markets, and the “sleight of hand’ of dirty deals with casinos, dotcoms, film and media magnates, and telcos, will do the job.
The good news, if you can call it good news, is that the economic myths that drove the world into this current mess are starting to unravel.
He is right. The debate is turning towards growth and away from austerity. Doing more of what led us into the crisis and what is keeping growth and jobs down is not the solution.
He ends the speech with a sound reassertion that Labour's agenda to make the economy fairer and more productive is one that is in the interests of almost all New Zealanders, and that we can make the changes if we have a well-organised progressive Labour party at the core of the next government.
Some of the details won't be agreeable to all, but the political purpose of the speech is well conceived and well executed: reminding people of our purpose as a party and who we are here for.
Let's see more of this, from David Cunliffe, David Parker, David Shearer, the whole front bench, the whole caucus and beyond. We aren't going to get people across our values unless we actually talk about them, and apply them to the things that really worry people.