Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 30 January 2015
Having become leader only a couple of months ago, there were great expectations for Andrew Little to spell out what Labour would focus on under his watch. He delivered in his ‘State of the Nation’ speech.
The image Little presented of his ideal Labour Party was painted with a big brush, presenting the general direction rather than individual policy initiatives. Little said so himself, so criticism that his remarks were lacking in detail are off the mark. That was emphatically not what Little aimed to achieve.
What he actually tried to do was much more ambitious than adding to the nitty-gritty of day to day politics: to find a new narrative, a new raison d’être for social democracy.
Around the world, social democrats are faced with the same challenge: to show that they are still relevant in the 21st century. Ironically, this problem is a result of their past successes. Social democracy has achieved many of its historic demands. For example, it established social safety nets, promoted equal rights for men and women and fought for many of the civil liberties we take for granted these days.
Having achieved all that, the question becomes what it is that should drive and characterise a modern Labour Party.
Some international centre-left parties have jumped on the band-wagon of environmental topics and anti-growth rhetoric. However, this territory is firmly occupied by Green parties so there is not much to gain for social democrats. Other centre-left parties have resorted to more ideological positions often taken against markets and business – ignoring that many of their voters work in the private sector and know a thing or two about the importance of wealth creation.
Little’s speech shows that he does not intend to fall into the same trap as many of his fellow centre-left leaders abroad. Instead, he presents a much more appealing idea: a reconciliation of social democracy with the market economy.
Little thus states that wealth has “to be created first before it could be shared”. He says that “a good quality of life for all of us needs strong economic performance.” He emphasises that “when people have jobs, they have dignity, they have self-respect, and their families have the best future.”
In other words, Little wants to see his party on the side of those creating wealth, jobs and income. In the best sense of the word, this is a truly progressive vision.
If Labour now follows Little’s broad vision, we can expect a more interesting political contest of ideas than what we have become used to in recent years.