27 April 2011

Labour's turn for a hiding

Phil Goff must be glad that the ACT party has taken attention away from Labour's pitiful performance for the time being. His predicament resembles that of Bill English when the latter was leader of the Opposition: low in the polls, failing to find traction, etc. The fact that no-one has rolled Goff so far suggests to me that Labour's front bench have basically decided that none of them is a match for John Key this election, and they're going to let Phil be the fall-guy. The take-home message is that Labour's front-runners are giving up on this Election. One expects a coup early next year.

Labour's basic problem, though, is not about 'who leads' but about the very relevance of centre-left social-democratic politics - which appears to be in decline in many western democracies. The danger is that populist hard-right parties with strongly nationalistic ideals step in to win the hearts and minds of working-class voters whose real material interests have not been adequately upheld by the parties of the left. (Look at Finland's recent election!) NZ Labour, like other similar parties, have tended to abandon social-democratic policies for fear of scaring 'the markets', and they have increasingly taken the 'safe' conservative options.

Furthermore, trade unions, Labour's traditional power-base, have been decimated (in terms of membership) due to the changes in employment laws; and both Labour and the union movement have sought a (very fragile) refuge in identity politics. The latter, in my experience, generally leads to an introverted concern for 'who' gets represented, and on which committees, but stifles robust policy debate and analysis.

Digging themselves out of this leadership and ideological hole is going to take Labour quite some time. But they have a responsibility to lower-income New Zealanders to come up with a credible alternative - before a raving nationalist, anti-immigrant party rushes in to fill the gap. (Can you think of a contender?)

Labour's 'Stop the asset sales' campaign may be aimed at a genuine weak-point in National's armour, but it hasn't exactly hit home so far. Labour would need to do more than just attack National. And they have yet to offer the anxious low-to-middle income voters an alternative that might promise greater security and opportunity for the future. The Greens may well be looking increasingly attractive to disillusioned lefties...


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