How Andrew Little needs to begin

How many times have we seen shots of Labour party leaders declaring unity while standing in front of caucus members, smiling the kind of smile you produce by sucking air through your teeth? 

Labour doesn't need more protests of unity. It needs more open debate.

People used to join the Labour party for the policy fights. A contest of ideas was how you sorted  good ideas from bad. Achievements like paid parental leave and the nuclear free policy were achieved only after advocates won the argument; Unity was earned by debate, not by shutting debate down and pretending there was no diversity of opinion on these issues.

You can't have a contest of ideas unless you accept into the fold people with a range of views, and celebrate ideological breadth. Bill Rowling and David Lange were both early sceptics of the nuclear free policy; yet today publicly arguing for a minority position within the party is mistaken for disloyalty.

So Andrew Little’s first challenge is to change this culture.

The 600,000 people who voted Labour a few months ago had nothing to do with this leadership contest. Most didn't care because the election purported to be a contest between fifty shades of beige:  ‘fairness’ and ‘opportunity for all’ as if anyone in Labour is in favour of unfairness and opportunity only for a wealthy few.

The exception was David Parker and Andrew Little differing over capital gains tax and the retirement age. Andrew Little wants to jettison Labour's election policies on those issues. He will now have to respond to Parker's question - if not a CGT, then what? Not forgetting the CGT is more popular in the polls than Labour right now.

Putting aside the irony of a union leader coming out against taxing capital in preference to labour, this was meaningful debate, but the front of the contest has left questions in the air because the organisers were paralysed by the prospect of actual difference of opinion.

For example, how will Labour protect the universality of superannuation if not by by increasing the age of entitlement in response to rising life expectancy? John Key's superannuation policy will inevitably result in rising pressure for the rate of superannuation to be cut or means tested. (That's why I disagree strongly with Bryce Edwards' claim that increasing the age of superannuation is 'right wing'; It is much more progressive than alternatives, whether changing the rate of super, or taxing working people - who die earlier - more to pay for it.)

What a pity these issues were not honestly thrashed out instead of a contest to see who could most frequently pepper their emails with risk-free platitudes .

The last time the Labour party avoided a serious debate on the economy, the policy vacuum was filled by Roger Douglas, and a privatisation agenda to make Thatcher blush.

Labour needs urgently to foster a red meat debate about a progressive agenda for the economy. Let the best ideas win. 

If people can’t debate new ideas within Labour without being excluded or denounced for treachery then they will be incentivised to drift away because the debate will occur elsewhere. And Labour will be the victim of the contest of ideas, not the owner of it.

Andrew Little needs to take on the dysfunction in the party. Changing the leader is the easy bit. 

Changing the party will be tough. Change is uncomfortable, and Andrew Little has to be prepared to have some people inside the party with a vested interest in the status quo not liking him, starting with many who put him there. If change isn’t making us uncomfortable, then its not real change.

If Labour can’t confront the deep structural explanations for defeat it can’t recover.

He needs to put a stop to calls for people to be excluded from caucus or the party and start focusing on who to attract, and he needs to champion genuine democracy in the party. The president should be directly elected like the leader was, as should NZ Council members, and the pattern of patronage and election by rotten boroughs needs to go.

Sector groups can be a sign of diversity in the party, but when success in the party relies on ability to get the patronage of unions or organised sectors then the system incentivises an inward focus and palace politics at the expense of recruitment and outward appeal.

I am supportive of Labour’s affiliate membership arrangements it is implausible that people voted in the election without any of the candidates for leader knowing who they are or having the ability to speak directly to them. 

If you want to be part of Labour you should have to indicate that to the party, not just to the affiliates, and candidates need to be able to lobby and influence those voters. 

Having been the beneficiary of this system, Andrew has moral authority to change it. That is a pathway to growth and therefore a springboard to appeal anew to New Zealanders.