Labour: Principles and pragmatism

After the shellacking in the general election, Labour must take its time as it takes stock.

Some in Labour conveniently blame Covid incumbency. There is something to this diagnosis because governing parties around the world suffered voter backlash.

But the halving of support against uninspiring opposition was extraordinary. There are other reasons at play.

Labour, after its decisive and impressive initial response to Covid under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Roberston, lost its way. Sure-footedness was followed by several stumbles.

Auckland, where Labour was smashed, went through drawn-out agony on what was supposed to be a short and sharp second lockdown. The podium of truth squandered its credibility.

The ship was already showing signs of listing when Ms Ardern jumped. New captain Chris Hipkins earnestly endeavoured to steer clear of reefs and rocks. All to no avail. All the while, several senior officers failed in their duties.

Mr Hipkins and Labour desperately cast around for policies against a reputation of non-delivery and the mood for change. Some, like GST off food and vegetables, smacked of insincere populism. Others seemed too little too late.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ
Labour leader Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ
A "captain’s call" ruled out a capital gains tax or wealth tax, leading to a loss of morale and questions about what Labour stands for.

Now, Mr Hipkins, confirmed as leader, is willing to contemplate what he specifically excluded under his leadership.

"We need to take stock, we need to refresh. We start again with a blank page," he said on Tuesday.

While all that is correct, Mr Hipkins is in severe danger of being painted as too much the pragmatist and too little the person of principle — too much the career politician blowing in the winds of expediency.

Labour had little choice but to confirm Mr Hipkins as leader at this stage. There was no-one else.

Stability is needed during the stock-take and until an alternative arises.

Mr Hipkins sought, in his policy bonfire and demeanour and utterances, to be the common man, the relatable DIY dad from the Hutt.

He could not, however, escape Labour’s identification with identity politics, with the progressive concerns of the educated professional classes and with Māori initiatives which he was reluctant to own until the very end.

He was caught unsuccessfully trying to straddle two stools. On the progressive side, the voters deserted to the Greens and Te Pāti Māori. Conversely, National, Act and New Zealand First provided a more convincing non-woke option.

This remains a dilemma for Labour. Would a move left to, for example, those wealth or capital-gain taxes have won that many votes? Or can it position itself as credible centre-left?

Anyway, does world-dependent New Zealand have a substantive ability to buck neo-liberal economic orthodoxy? Or do the markets and the international flows of capital and people severely limit a small fry’s options?

Is modifying the excesses of capitalism through the likes of "fair pay" agreements, higher minimum wages, more state housing, more state interventions the best Labour can achieve?

This is the incrementalism of Helen Clark or Jacinda Ardern. Make changes that can be broadly acceptable and, hopefully, become embedded.

After all, while the purists of the left might lament, New Zealand is seen as relatively socialist in the eyes of some.

Labour need not rush nor lose heart. The wheel of fortune can revolve quickly as evidenced by National’s recovery from the depths and Labour’s voting collapse.

Generally, too, governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning. National’s Christopher Luxon has a trail of trials, not least dealing with Winston Peters.

As Labour searches for its soul and the route ahead, it will endure the ongoing tensions between idealists and pragmatists. The idealists will need to temper their goals with the realisation of what is possible, what it takes to win sufficient votes and to take the people with them. The pragmatists, meanwhile, must retain long-term goals and principles as beacons. Hard-headed and fundamental idealism — rather than just expediency — must be their underlying guide.