Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political roundup: Labour's return to radicalism

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Labour’s bold new “free tertiary education” announcement constitutes its most leftwing policy for decades. And not only is it a radical policy shift for the party, it says a lot about the interesting political ideology of the times.
Labour leader Andrew Little during yesterday's Labour family picnic held at Albert Park. Photo / Dean Purcell
Labour leader Andrew Little during yesterday's Labour family picnic held at Albert Park. Photo / Dean Purcell

Labour's biggest shift to the left in decades seems to be resonating. By and large the reaction has been extraordinarily positive, for what is an incredibly contentious policy. Of course many on the political right have come out strongly against the whole concept, but on the whole there has been a surprising amount of praise for the radical new policy. For an array of interesting reactions and debate about the policy, see my blog post, Top tweets about Andrew Little's State of the Nation speech.

Upon hearing the announcement, many journalists tweeted about how radical the move was. For example, Sam Sachdeva (@SamSachdevaNZ) said "Whether you like it or not, Labour's policy certainly meets the 'go big or go home' test", Rebecca Wright (@rebeccawright) exclaimed "Labour's out of the gate with a banggggggg & it's not even election year!" and Jessica McAllen (@Jess_McAllen) tweeted, "Labour this is H U G E".

Leftwing political activists were particularly joyful - Jarred Griffiths ?(@jarredgriffiths) tweeted: "Bold, future-focused and progressive. Welcome back @nzlabour, I've missed you." Education analyst Ben Guerin (?@bjhguerin) said "Got to give Little credit, free tertiary education is a big, ambitious policy. Something Labour hasn't had since before 2008."

In the leftwing blogosphere, there were plenty of jubilant posts. Unionist Stephanie Rodgers declared it "a pretty tremendous announcement" - see: Three free years. She also thought that the policy heralded the start of a new radicalism for Labour: "if Labour builds on this across its portfolios - social development, healthcare, justice - it has the beginnings of a bold, compelling set of ideas to take into the 2017 election. Labour in 2016 is not afraid to look to the left, change the conversation, and dare National to follow their lead. It's exactly what they've needed. Long may it continue."

Martyn Bradbury praised Andrew Little, saying "Labour look like they stand for something real and he did it by not becoming all doom and gloom. It was solution based policy that has a real impact on voters lives. It was bold and shows a Leader who is feeling so much more confident after the TPPA decision" - see: Rating the 4 States of the Nation.

And on The Standard, Anthony Robins said the policy "isn't perfect but it's a great start, a move towards addressing the injustice of inter-generational debt" - see: Another policy to be proud of.

The most interesting analysis of the new policy in the leftwing blogosphere came in Danyl Mclauchlan's Notes on Labour's free tertiary education policy. He records his agreement with the policy, raising questions only about the strategic intelligence: "I would have thought that one of the big negative impressions/barriers to voting that people have about the Labour Party is profligacy. 'Borrow and spend'. All that core National messaging stuff. So launching a big ticket billion dollar policy right at the start of the years seems risky to me. It will be wildly, insanely popular with the activist left though. Most of them were involved in student politics and student unions (like Andrew Little) and protested against the fees and loan policies in the 1990s (or subsequently) and for them free tertiary education is a defining political issue."

A positive media reaction

If praise from the left isn't surprising, then the generally positive response from political journalists should be. Mostly the media pronounced the radical policy to be a strong one. TV3's Patrick Gower awarded it an "A" - see: Good marks for Labour's new tertiary education policy. He declared it "one of the better policy announcements I've seen Labour make in quite some time" and said "the policy wasn't full of holes like many of the Labour policy shockers of recent times."

Gower could see how the policy could be electorally successful for Labour: "Labour is aiming this at some crucial target markets - obviously students, but also their middle class, centre-voter parents worried about the costs their kids face. This obviously comes straight out of Helen Clark's interest-free student loans playbook and is aimed at grabbing the attention of those centre voters who shifted to John Key and never came back."

The Herald's Audrey Young also thinks the policy "will be popular" - see: A vow, a hope and a prayer. She has more praise for it, saying "It shows Labour has a plan at a time of rising insecurity over the future of work. It comes out of the work finance spokesman Grant Robertson is doing on the future of work, including work over the summer break in Europe, and there will be much more to come. If it is a bribe, it will be a deeply researched one, not just policy on the hoof." And on the cost of the policy, Young says, it's "not unrealistic."

Parallels have been drawn with Labour's electorally-successful 2005 interest-free student loans policy - notably by Vernon Small in his column, Labour looking to the past to plan the future?. Small sees this policy as also having potential: "it will likely have the generational cross-over appeal that characterised the 2005 promise. It is not just students who want to see lower fees and small debt burdens; their parents and grandparents also see student debt as an impediment to house-buying and family forming - and in the past even as a reason their families were split by outward migration. After Little's "year of consolidation" in 2015, it is the first big policy in what he has promised will be a year of policy and ideas."

Small also emphasises how the policy will have positive internal benefits for Labour: "If nothing else, what the Labour leader called his 'big Little policy' should allow Labour to shift the debate onto its own ground and lift the mood among the activist base - spirits that well-needed a fill up after the party's Trans-Pacific Partnership cluster failure last week."

Long-time politics watcher Richard Harman also sees the policy winning votes and helping differentiate Labour, as it "sets up a simple contest at the next election - National will be offering tax cuts (modest ones, says Finance spokesman, Bill English) whilst Labour will be offering its education and retraining. If, as looks likely, unemployment is still high in 2017, Labour's policy might find a surprising amount of support" - see: Andrew Little goes on the front foot. Harman views the announcement as "part of a much bigger redefinition of the party's economic policies."

Criticisms from the right

The strongest criticism from the political right is encapsulated in David Farrar's blog post, Labour goes even further left, in which he declares "This is a very very bad policy. Not a moderately bad policy, but a really really bad policy". He calls it "a remarkable lunge to the left. They've adopted what was a fringe Alliance Party policy."

Farrar puts forward five basic arguments against the policy, which he summarises: "Cost massively more than $1.2 billion a year; Incentivise lower quality courses; Help the most wealthy; Is not targeted to those most needing assistance; Has a huge opportunity cost".

For similar arguments, see also Geoff Simmons' Free Tertiary Education - Helping the Poor or Middle Class Welfare?.

Matthew Hooton has been at the forefront of criticisms. Once it was announced Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) tweeted: "@AndrewLittleMP announces higher taxes will fund free sociology BAs for everyone".

He actually forecast the announcement on his RNZ Politics commentary slot last Monday. And today he argued over the policy again in the 23-minute discussion on the week in politics - listen: Political commentators Matthew Hooton and Stephen Mills.

Tertiary education minister, Steven Joyce has been leading the attack for the Government, and his criticisms of the policy can be read in RNZ's Labour's education plan a desperate throwback, says Joyce (). He puts forward an "equity" argument against free education: "Don't forget that when people graduate they earn a significant income premium, so it actually would increase inequity and inequality because you would be asking the builders and the plumbers to pay more for the education of the lawyers, the accountants and the doctors."

Responding to such criticism, Labour Party spin-doctor Rob Salmond has blogged, Protesting too much: responses to Labour's new tertiary policy.

Despite the harsh criticisms from National, there's some speculation about when and how National might emulate the policy. Leftwing activist Bayden Harris (@BaydenHarris) tweeted, "If History is anything to go by, National will implement a watered down version of today's policy announcement in three years."

Others have written along similar lines. In the NBR, Chris Keall discusses Labour's unusual strategy of releasing the policy so far out from an election, warning that "National now has time to gauge reaction and, if necessary (and you couldn't rule it out given its track record) co-opt the policy" - see: Labour's multi-billion free tertiary education policy called a 'poorly-targeted bribe'.

And also in the NBR, Rob Hosking writes "National will wind up pinching the policy or, at least, the best bits of it. Of course it will. That is in the fine tradition of conservative governments everywhere, and certainly of this one" - see his paywalled column, Little's free tertiary education move: where's the rest of it? ().

Criticisms from the left

Not all of the left are uncritical of the new policy. The general tenor of complaints is that the policy doesn't go far enough. It's the slow timeframe for implementing the policy that John Minto dislikes: "This means only those children aged under seven now will get the maximum three years fully funded tertiary education when they leave school in 2025. And what renders the policy as a package almost meaningless is that Labour would have to win three elections in a row to even get the policy up to full speed" - see: Labour targets the under-sevens with its tertiary education fees policy.

New Zealand First activist Curwin Ares Rolinson argues that "Labour's announcement of three years' free tertiary education by 2025 isn't quite the unprecedented 'game-changer' some are making it out to be" - see: Labour's Three Free Years Of Tertiary Education - A Critical Appraisal. He suggests that the party needs to adopt more progressive policies on student loans and allowances.

There are others worried that Labour's policy doesn't go far enough. For example the lobby group that represents all universities, Universities New Zealand, has hesitated to support the policy until Labour promises to also increase funding to the institutions - see Kirsty Johnston's Labour free study plan worries unis.

Economist Ganesh Nana is also quoted as seeing no problems with the policy, but noting that it raised questions about how Labour would raise the additional revenue required.

One blogger at The Standard thinks that such money could be better directed at families with children, and primary schools. - see: So, how would you spend $1.2B per year?.

Another leftwing critique has been raised on Facebook by Labour Party activist and former election candidate Patrick Hine, who is unconvinced that the policy adequately covers those who will need to retrain in the future, long after they have undertaken tertiary education: "Now I don't want to be a spoilsport, but Labour's policy was presented in Andrew Little's speech as originating in the economic policy context of the Future of Work Commission and aimed at people who have had jobs and lost them because of changing technology, outdated skills etc. But if you're 40 now and the skills you learned doing that polytechnic certificate 20 years ago are obsolete, you won't be eligible under the policy. Anybody who has undergone tertiary education in the past will be ineligible. Many of the people it professes to be for won't be eligible for it. It's a free tertiary education policy mainly directed at 18-20 year olds - why not argue for it as such? Others will quickly interpret it that way anyway."

Grant Robertson has replied to this criticism to say that Labour has further announcements to come that will deal with this problem.

Regardless, it seems that Labour's promise of radicalism could finally be coming to fruition under new leader Andrew Little. He might actually turn out to be more radical in substance than even David Cunliffe who was strong in terms of radical rhetoric.

For the first time in years, Labour is leading the policy debate rather than just responding to National. This is the strong point made today by Auckland University Students Association president, Will Matthews in his blog post, Trailblazing. He says the new policy "could give the party the first big lead it's had over National (and the Greens, to be honest) in 8 years. Not a polling lead, but a lead in policy. Labour has spent so long trailing after National in most policy areas, offering plenty of criticism but very little initiative".

No doubt, Labour's bold shift with this policy reflects a wider Western revival in leftwing radicalism. It could be that Labour and Little have begun to "Feel the Bern" - the phrase used about the wave of enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders in the US at the moment - see Chris Trotter's Andrew Little's Labour: two steps forward, one step back.

Trotter says that the new policy is ironic because it "could be interpreted as an ideological slap in the face" for Phil Goff, the man Little has been at loggerheads with about the TPP, and the Minister of Education who brought in student fees in 1990.

It's now a world away from then and the decades that followed, in which free tertiary education has been regarded as beyond the pale for mainstream politics. Tertiary education fees have been seen as a core part of the neoliberal project in New Zealand. So for the free education debate to return, suddenly, says much about the flux of politics at the moment. This new policy reflects the interesting times that we are now living in. The cosy consensus politics of the 1990s and 2000s have broken down, with many of the old policy assumptions now under challenge.

Finally, although Labour's radical new policy is being hailed as a "blast from the past", there was in fact much interest in the idea at the 2014 general election, partly because the Internet Mana Party was campaigning on it. For this reason, TVNZ undertook some public polling on the issue during the election campaign, and found that 53 per cent of respondents thought the Government should restore free tertiary education, compared to just 32 per cent who didn't - see Kate Chapman's Vote Compass: Support for free tertiary education. And, also from that time, Andrew Chen wrote an in-depth evaluation of the policy - see: A Policy A Day: Free Tertiary Education.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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