Audrey Young
Political editor Audrey Young blogs from Parliament

Audrey Young: Labour needs a clear idea of its direction

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Phil Goff and the caucus will have a chance next week to find ways to improve on a less than lustrous year. Photo / The Daily Post
Phil Goff and the caucus will have a chance next week to find ways to improve on a less than lustrous year. Photo / The Daily Post

If the past week was National's re-entry to politics this year, with the Cabinet resuming work, the three strikes policy announced, the tax review out, a royal visitor to host and an outing to Ratana, it's Labour's turn next.

Phil Goff will lead a big delegation on to Ratana tomorrow, he has a big speech next week setting out his priorities, and he will chair the first caucus meeting of the year.

At Tuesday's caucus meeting in Manukau, Goff will be confirmed resolutely as leader. Under the party's rules the leadership must be addressed in the first caucus of the year before election year.

Before inviting the caucus back to his Clevedon farm for dinner, he will deliver a short message to his MPs - do better than you did last year.

The implication must be that if they don't shape up, they will be shipped out.

Labour could afford to have had a bad year last year, its first year out of office in nine years. But it can't afford to have one this year.

By the end of the year, it does not need to be ahead of National, but it needs to feel as though it is within striking distance. If it doesn't feel that, panic could set in.

Some in Labour did well and do not need to worry.

Among them are David Parker with ACC, who was assisted by National's mismanagement of the fees issue. Charles Chauvel was on top of the difficult climate change issue, Clayton Cosgrove at least put some energy into his fight against Corrections Minister Judith Collins even if he didn't land a blow; and most of the 2008 intake - namely Grant Robertson, Phil Twyford, Brendon Burns and Clare Curran - did better in their first year in politics than former ministers.

Trevor Mallard can safely assume he will be an unspoken target of Goff's "must improve" team talk.

Mallard made a hit in the blogosphere with his deft hand on Labour's Red Alert, where he is also overlord with veto rights on what runs.

But he has been patchy on education where Anne Tolley is considered one of National's vulnerable ministers.

For others, it won't be hard to improve because they did so badly last year.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Chris Carter had a shocking year, due in no small part to his reaction to media stories about about high travel costs. He will miss the first caucus meeting because he is in the Caribbean monitoring elections for the Commonwealth.

Parekura Horomia made no impact against the Maori Party but is seen as untouchable because he held his seat against it, and is the senior Maori.

Shane Jones, whose leadership ambitions are a frequent source of teasing by National, made no impact in his areas of environment and economic development, but was de facto Maori Affairs spokesman.

And David Cunliffe, whose leadership ambitions are a regular source of teasing within Labour, will be expected to do better against Finance Minister Bill English.

Cunliffe's failings in the past year have brought increasing comment.

He is highly intelligent and was an able minister. But he did not get traction last year in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

That is forgivable in the first year of a popular new government that used the recession to win the war over the quality of Labour's legacy.

But it won't do for much longer. Cunliffe's intellect steers him naturally towards debates over ideas and winning arguments, often in a smart-alec way.

Goff is expected to lead a concerted effort this year to make Cunliffe and other MPs put ordinary working people uppermost in their minds as they develop their portfolios and policies.

He will expand on the theme at his first big speech of the year, on Thursday in Hamilton.

Goff himself would do well at caucus to point to his own inadequacies.

After all the talk of his grandmother, the motorbike and Mary, Goff may be more human, but he has had little cut-through with the public.

Labour has made gains in the past two polls, but it is it is about 20 to 25 points below National.

Concentrating the party's focus on its worker roots should be a no-risk strategy for Goff. It makes sense. And it is a theme that the caucus left should embrace as much as the others.

The underlying disquiet over Goff's racial separatism speech last year was a reminder that the party's liberal left, while not formally organised, exists and Goff cannot rely on its acquiescence simply because "the leader has spoken".

But left-wing commentator and author Chris Trotter applauded on his Bowalley Road blog the Goff speech as an important blow against a small but powerful sub-set in Labour driven by identity politics (gays, women, Maori etc) and social liberal ideology.

Trotter says that before Goff can return the party to its working people's roots, he has to be seen to have dealt to the "Komissariat' in his own caucus and party, which sounds a little like destroying the village to save the city.

As it played out at the end of the last year, those who had voiced concerns about the speech - Grant Robertson and party president Andrew Little - quickly issued statements backing Goff.

The sensitivities in Labour are profound, and understandable.

Helen Clark's careful management of the party's previously fractious groupings led the party to power and once there she maintained that management.

Goff does not maintain relationships as assiduously, and this leaves the party more vulnerable to disharmony as it debates its direction.

In a caucus of 43, Labour's hardcore left is down to about a dozen - Ruth Dyson, Chris Carter, Maryan Street, Lianne Dalziel, Charles Chauvel, Steve Chadwick, Sue Moroney, Jacinda Ardern, Carol Beaumont, Iain Lees-Galloway, Grant Robertson and Phil Twyford.

Numbers don't matter unless there is a crisis and there is no crisis. Maintaining harmony does matter.

And one of the biggest challenges for Goff this year will be to manage the policy debates in the caucus and party without discord.

One of the party's young thinkers, Jordan Carter, who contested Hunua, said this week that the party needed to drop its tradition of top-down management.

In an IT age with the end of deference towards authority, a political party that is centralised and top-down cannot capture the public imagination, he said in his Just Left blog.

Labour had to turn itself inside out, he said, and had to listen to people and let people shape what they did next.

"We have to do this if we are to be relevant, and if we want to win there is nothing more important than being relevant."

Goff could do worse than get Carter to speak to the caucus.

- NZ Herald

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