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Chris Ford: An open letter to Labour's new leadership team

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 Dear David Shearer and Grant Robertson,

First of all congratulations upon your elevation to Labour's leadership and deputy leadership roles. If I might say so, I know Grant Robertson from way back and today I am genuinely delighted by his elevation to the Labour Party deputy leadership. In a blog earlier this year, I recounted the story of Grant getting up in front of the first preliminary Politics lecture at Otago University in 1990 and putting himself forward as class rep. Grant showed leadership skills way back then and today he has been rewarded for that. All the best to you, Grant.

Also to David Shearer - well done on getting to the leadership so quickly too. I must admit that while you may have a propensity to stumble Phil Goff-like on things, I hope you also have the ability to learn quickly too. Admittedly, though, you do have some cut through with the public in terms of your personality and on that point, you should be able to eventually foot it with John Key. After all, we need an actual opposition leader and not one who merely sits back and takes the punches as your predecessor did.

But with leadership come responsibilities - and one of them is to maintain a progressive policy profile. While I am not enamoured of all of Labour's policy platform (such as its unadultered support for free trade), the party has shown an ability during the last three years to come out with some very progressive policy positions. Taking GST off fresh fruit and vegetables, introducing a Capital Gains Tax and greater progressivity in the income tax system, extending Working for Families payments to beneficiary households, promoting greater collective bargaining in industrial relations, pledging to increase tertiary education and early childhood funding, ending National Standards in primary education and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour were all good policies from a left standpoint. 

Yet, Labour will feel the temptation to go rightwards in order to reclaim the so-called 'middle ground'. In a previous blog, I predicted that Labour would feel so tempted, in this regard, to roll back its pledges on National Standards, tax policy, re-introducing universal student membership and extending Working for Families. I say to both of you that if you are so inclined then stop and think again. Those policies in my belief showed how courageous Labour was in standing up to the New Right in a way it had not done for nearly 30 years. Where I feel Labour lost a lot of votes was in its pledge to gradually raise the retirement age to 67 and increase compulsory saving. This policy, according to National's internal polling, hit Labour hard. Similarly, the failure to clearly explain that the impact of a Capital Gains Tax would fall more on upper income households hurt its vote within middle New Zealand as well.

Grant and David, Labour should retain the best of its progressive policy programme. It could aim to make itself more attractive to middle class voters by, for example, pledging to scrap doctors visit fees for all New Zealanders and end prescription charges for medicines and introduce a Universal Student Allowance. Labour could also pledge that, as a first step, it will aim to subsidise the dental bills of all New Zealanders. Given that most middle income New Zealanders find that the cost of accessing medical care and tertiary education for their children is too prohibitive. Even pledging to rein in power prices through gradually re-nationalising energy companies will appeal to many New Zealanders across the board. Therefore, Labour needs to show that its policies will benefit middle class New Zealanders more! They need to know that their taxes are being redirected not just to support the poorest Kiwis (as they should be) but to them as well. Otherwise, National and their right wing allies will continue to exploit societal divisions and prejudices through their use of wedge politics as they have been doing in the welfare reform debate. Labour should not regress to where it stood between 1987 and 1990 when it was a truly New Right-oriented party for that only secured a massive defeat for it. 

In the meantime, I hope that parties like the Alliance, the Greens (who now look likely to stay in opposition) and Te Mana will keep the pressure on you both as you assume Labour's leadership to continue to hoe a more progressive left line in policy. Otherwise, what will be the point of changing governments in 2014 if we just elect a mere version of National Lite? Nothing. You two guys have the ability to communicate Labour's policy vision better whilst making changes that will attract voters back to the party.  On this point, it must be remembered that many core working class and poorer Labour voters didn't turn out on November 27 for one reason - they just didn't picture your predecessor as a credible alternative PM and one who could deliver on the party's vision at that.

A new start is what Labour needs. It is the leading centre-left party in New Zealand politics and the left bloc's fortunes are tied to it. Both of you men have now assumed one of the biggest tasks in left politics in this country for nearly 30 years - that of bringing a centre-left government back to office. Only a credible left wing policy agenda can do it!

All the best to you both,

Chris Ford


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