It is one thing being in Opposition complaining about what has happened in government; it is another thing to have a viable policy.

Pundit: 3 December, 2014.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

It was unfortunate that the first public issue that Andrew Little had to deal with was the Roger Sutton affair. Here was the leader of the Labour Party grumbling yet again. We’ve had six years of such grumbling; an issue comes up, the spokesperson complains it is not going right, and they (it is often unspecified who ‘they’ is) should do something about it. If the last two elections are any guide, the public has not been very impressed.

It gives the impression of a party bobbing helplessly on the tides sweeping New Zealand. I had to remind myself that Little is a very experienced employment lawyer and has expertise on the topic (which is not common among grumblers).

Shortly afterwards, Little had the Prime Minister on the ropes over his curious relationship with Cameron Slater. Bringing down a prime minister would be a political achievement (Slater himself is more likely to do that), but one cannot help noticing that the electorate has not been greatly impressed when lesser politicians – even a front bencher during an election campaign – have had to resign. The ‘Beltway’ (and the cyber-beltway) might be, but they don’t seem to have many votes or much influence on the electorate.

(‘Beltway’ is an American term for Washington officials, contractors and lobbyists, and the corporate media who cover them. They generally live inside a ring road called the ‘Capital Beltway’. They have an intense (and sometimes informed) interest in politics, in contrast to the interests and priorities of the general US population.)

Little has followed on with further beltway successes of changing the surveillance legislation and a speech setting out some of his thinking. His beltway supporters are greatly chuffed; the rest are beginning to wonder whether Labour has – at last – got an effective leader (although they are very aware that three weeks’ success does not make a prime minister).

But Labour is doomed if once more it lapses back into its grumbling mode. Sure, third-term governments tend to be tired, arrogant and bereft of ideas. But a grumbling Labour Party looks like the same party with different faces waiting to takeover. Sure, they may get into office, with its chauffeured BMWs and patronage for associates but end up meekly doing what the officials tell them (which may be no bad thing); being in power is a different matter.

There are plenty in parliament who are not capable of anything but grumbling and, in any case, what is one to do when a journalist, looking for a story, rings up and asks for a grumble about the latest government failure? (Parliament’s top grumbler is John Key, who often distances himself from a government failure, grumbles about it on our behalf, and gives the impression that something will be done.)

The grumbling can be put into a context if the party has some themes it is promoting – some vision. The Greens are an example. On certain grumbling issues they will always respond that the outcome is environmentally destructive. Everyone knows the Greens stand for environmental sustainability. What does Labour stand for?

Now of course some Labour supporters, especially if they are committed (and often uncritical), can tell you what they think their party’s themes are, or should be. Very often it is a particular policy – say a capital gains tax – but how does it fit into a coherent vision?

The rest of the country is even less clear. They would probably describe Labour in terms of its past record and a smattering of policies, much like the party members would. But this is not a vision of a progressive party dealing with the problems of the day and anticipating the challenges of the future. That is a very different from pretending to be a National Government in waiting.

What might those themes be? The way I think of it, goes like this. Someone grumbles about something – grumbling cant be stopped – but a senior takes them aside and says ‘you have left out what we are trying to do. You should have put it in context.’

The context could be
– this has increased poverty and inequality;
– this is another example of poor quality public services that the government is causing through squeezing funding;
– short term thinking has once more compromised social and environmental sustainability;
– yet another example of light-handed regulation with excessive confidence in the unregulated market mechanism which causes waste, distress and death;
– yet again the narrowness of a government which goes for increasing business profit at the expense of enhancing the quality of life.

I am not saying the above list is complete (although it cant be too long – grumblers have limited retention). Nor need all the above themes be present. The public will not seize on them immediately. But over time they’ll get a message (so will the beltway): this is what Labour is about; these are our priorities in government; we are not interested in the baubles of office, we are interested in using power to the long-run benefit of all New Zealanders.