30 November 2011

Where to now for Labour?

While the Labour party caucus agonizes over a new leader, it's worth remembering the old saying: "structure follows strategy." Too often people see a change of leader and a reorganization as a solution. But if you haven't worked out what the strategic problem was to begin with, the restructuring may be futile and misguided. (Haven't we all been 'restructured' for no apparent reason!?)

While it may be right for Phil Goff to stand down now and avoid a messy coup, the leadership change may be bungled if people aren't asking the right questions. It's not about internal factions – or it shouldn't be.

Any political party needs a coherent, positive, aspirational message. Too many of Labour's messages were negative ("stop asset sales") or mixed (expand WFF to beneficiaries, but work longer till you get Super). This suggests poor strategic thinking.

Two negative vox-pop comments that I heard about Labour around the campaign really stood out for me:

1. "Socialism is a luxury we can't afford". It's a very long time since Labour was genuinely socialist, so Labour needs to shake off that perception. (But since when was socialism "luxurious" anyway?) Furthermore, Labour has to deal with this contradiction between being seen as "soft" on people deemed "unable to make it for themselves" by voters more in the centre, and being too mean and "neo-liberal" by those on the left. Labour's mixed messages stem from this ideological and factional contradiction.

2. "I don't like National's policies, but I don't want Labour to win." Voter sentiment doesn't come much more difficult than that - from the perspective of the losers. How does Labour turn the voters' dislike of National's policies into a desire for a change to Labour? Renewed leadership is a part of that strategy, but the right strategic messages and policies must be worked out first.

My suggestion is that Labour quickly steal the adjective "aspirational". Let's (us Kiwis) aspire to something more hopeful and full of opportunity. Labour already possesses many of the policies and basic words and ideas that would launch such a strategy. But I suggest that Labour needs to do some soul-searching about this strategic issue BEFORE they choose a new leader. Otherwise it's all just introspective factional stuff, lacking in political strategic thinking.

Get the strategic message right, and then choose the most convincing face to front it.


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