As the Labour Party turns 100, Claire Trevett looks at its efforts to shake off the tribulations of the past and rebuild as a strong force for next year’s election.

There was a sign spring may have arrived for the Labour Party after a very long and grim winter in Opposition.

It came in the form of a joke about the ongoing soap opera that is the British Labour Party, during a meeting of Labour's senior MPs in leader Andrew Little's office.

The MPs had just emerged from a "procedures meeting" to discuss their strategy for the day. On the other side of the world, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was being hung, drawn and quartered by his own caucus after Brexit.

The series:
Today: State of Labour - where the party stands as it turns 100
Tomorrow: The man who would be King - Andrew Little under the microscope
Friday: The game plan - Labour's bid to win election 2017


There are certain parallels to Labour here. They too had seen off an unpopular leader seemingly determined to hang on after a disastrous election result, there were dramatic scenes of self-flagellation and MPs imploding in public. They too had a leader elected with the support of the rank and file and unionists in apparent defiance of caucus' own wishes.

Yet here were Little and the MPs who did not vote for him, joking about their British brethren. Whip Chris Hipkins observed that British Labour had somehow managed to turn a disaster for the governing Conservatives into a disaster for themselves. "It takes a special sort to do that."

The joke would have been gallows humour for the New Zealand Labour Party until quite recently. It is a sign that maybe, finally, Labour has its house in order or has at least managed to ram all the junk into a discreet storage cupboard.

In contrast to their British counterparts, the Labour caucus is as calm as it has been since entering Opposition back in 2008. That is partly by dint of Little adopting a very British motto in confronting ongoing low polling: "Keep calm and carry on."

The party is not where it would like to be as it reaches its 100th birthday this week. It is barely 18 months since Labour hit rock bottom in the 2014 election. It is a year since a review of the party warned it risked political oblivion if it could not rally its fortunes - politically and literally.

Getting to 30 per cent in a poll is now considered an achievement - and NZ First leader Winston Peters is regularly polling higher than Little as preferred Prime Minister. Questions are being asked about whether Labour can ever rebuild into a major political force or whether a country in which trade unions are much less of a force has outgrown it.

It is not a question unique to New Zealand Labour. The British Labour Party comparison is not completely off the mark. The turmoil post-Brexit prompted John Harris to write in the Guardian that Labour was "in the midst of a longstanding and possibly terminal malaise". He asked whether Labour's foundations in the trade union movement and the "big state' approach had evaporated, and whether even the Labour voters who remained knew what it stood for.

Former British MP Bryan Gould, who reviewed NZ Labour after the 2014 election, says the dilemma facing the party here is similar.

Leader of the Labour party Andrew Little with during a Procedure's meeting in Parliament in Wellington. Photo / Marty Melville
Leader of the Labour party Andrew Little with during a Procedure's meeting in Parliament in Wellington. Photo / Marty Melville

"They have been beached to a certain degree. They are still calling themselves 'Labour' and here they are representing one half of society - the half that works for wages - and the other half are people who are or want to be employers or investors." He says Labour has identified that "what they haven't come up with is a way of describing society that gives them a chance for showing they are still relevant".

Sins of the past

Little does not believe Labour is now irrelevant but says it is still being held responsible for the sins of the past. He says many people still hold Labour responsible for the 1980s Rogernomics reforms, and by the end of the Clark Government era "we were seen as managing our way through politics and political issues.

"I think that's turned a lot of people off us, not permanently, but they see it as 'more machine politics, machine politicians'. People want to see something more than that."

Auckland University political scientist Jennifer Lees-Marshment says there is little evidence Labour is resonating as yet. She says National does have big weaknesses, but they won't show up unless Labour comes up with something better.

Lees-Marshment points to housing and traffic in Auckland. "What it means is people's daily lives are really hard work now in a way they never used to be. Many people don't care about politics because it's too removed from their daily life. But these are issues that are every single day.

"It means the 'Kiwi dream' is slipping away and people's quality of life is going. And it's people who are working - it's not the down-and-outs Labour tends to support, it is actually National supporters. Their target market of hard-working professionals are doing it tough."

She says there is little risk Labour will become obsolete. "People want a strong Labour Party. The demand is there, the need is there, I just think they haven't responded to it." She says Labour only has itself to blame for that. "If Labour were strong, Key's polls and National's situation would be completely different. People want them, they've got to do the job."

Whether Labour can rise to that challenge could be seen this weekend - the party is planning a blitzkrieg on housing policy.

It is an apt topic for the party's milestone - it was Labour that introduced state housing and Labour leaders since have parroted Norm Kirk's phrase that New Zealanders want the simple things: "someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work, and something to hope for".

Little has promised a comprehensive package and after criticising National's response as "piecemeal" he cannot afford to fail to deliver that.

It is expected to look at an urban development agency to force open more land in Auckland as well as an affordable housing package - possibly a fine-tuning of Labour's existing KiwiBuild policy.

Labour is dead! Long live Labour!

There are those arguing National is getting stale and the cyclical nature of politics means it will be Labour's "turn" once again. They point to National's slump into the low 20s in 2002.

But Labour has been in a much longer-lasting slump that is on the verge of being entrenched. By the middle of the third term of National's long nine years in Opposition from 1999 to 2008, the party was again well ahead of Labour in the polls.

It overtook Labour in the polls under Don Brash - the last time Labour polled higher than National was in April 2006. By July 2007, John Key was the leader and National was six to eight points ahead of Labour in the Herald DigiPoll.

Now in its third term in Government, National still polls 15 to 20 points more than Labour. That does not mean the left is lost - it is more fractured than the right and the Green Party can add 11 points. It does not spell good news for Labour pulling even with National in the near future.

Little does not shy away from the poll results, saying what is unusual is that Labour's vote has dropped in three successive elections since 2008. "Normally after one or two elections you start picking up again. We haven't. So we've done a lot of damage to a lot of our support base."

He believes there are now more voters "looking around" for someone to support. "There is a lot more in play. Our challenge is to make ourselves heard on the issues people are most concerned about."

He says that includes concern about homelessness. "But also the idea that you can be on a reasonably good income, and no matter how hard you work and save you can't afford to buy a first home. That's a real concern. I get more correspondence from parents of adult children on that than on anything else."

The Australian Labor Party results in last week's election and the rejection of Conservative leader David Cameron's EU referendum pleas would normally be cause for hope for a social democratic party elsewhere. But both Gould and Lees-Marshment point to a critical difference in NZ: National's stability.

"Here in New Zealand you've got a very stable governing party with an almost immovable Prime Minister," Gould says. "What I fear from the viewpoint of a Labour supporter is the pattern is fairly well-established and I can't see anything on the horizon that [will] change that greatly.

"That points to the real problem for Labour, both here and elsewhere."

Former party president Mike Williams says Labour now is better placed than it was a year before the 2014 election, pointing to changes in the party organisation, some new and impressive candidates and the end of leadership rumblings in the caucus.

After the 2014 election, UMR research in Moments of Truth listed the main reasons National supporters voted how they did. Almost 90 per cent listed National's track record in Government, and it being best placed to form a stable Government.

Others included management of the economy while three-quarters said they did not feel Labour was ready to lead a Government.

Dirty politics and other political ephemera such as individual policies ranked in the single figures.

Labour's memorandum of understanding with the Greens is aimed at addressing the perception Labour is not a viable alternative.

Finance spokesman Grant Robertson is in charge of puncturing the perception that National is better at the economy. Labour has also come up with figures to show workers are not getting the same portion of economic growth they did in the past.

Robertson is steering a "Future of Work" programme to formulate policies custom-made for the workforce of today - in which technology is taking over many roles and the numbers of self-employed are rising while union membership drops.

Senior MPs Jacinda Ardern, Megan Woods and Annette King with Andrew Little at the 8am meeting. Photo / Marty Melville
Senior MPs Jacinda Ardern, Megan Woods and Annette King with Andrew Little at the 8am meeting. Photo / Marty Melville

Robertson says the modern Labour Party has been able to appeal to a range of New Zealanders in the past and can do it again. "That's obviously the challenge we've got, to be able to broaden our appeal to be a party of Government."

Green Party co-leader James Shaw also points to the Future of Work as a critical tool for Labour to reinvent itself. He says the party still has a strong set of values and has had for 100 years.

"What it needs to do is translate those into the 21st century context. I don't think that just because times have changed it means a political party is doomed to irrelevancy any more than any other political party."

It is about the money

Labour's campaign in 2014 has since been described by insiders as a disaster, disorganised and with precious little money to fund it. The review of the party warned it risked "political oblivion" if it could not up its game.

Gould, who was on the review panel, says quite a lot has been done since then, bit by bit. Rebuilding requires more than politicians and policies - it also requires money.

The job of rebuilding Labour in an organisational and financial sense has gone to its new team of president Nigel Haworth and general secretary Andrew Kirton. The party officials do not have the public profile the MPs have, but they are just as important for party's wellbeing.

Haworth is a British-born "socialist" trade unionist forged under Margaret Thatcher. Kirton is a former adviser to Helen Clark who since 2008 has worked in the corporate world in London for Heathrow Airport and then Mace Group, a huge builder responsible for building modern city icons such as the Shard and London Eye. It goes without saying he is more comfortable mixing with big business than his predecessor, Tim Barnett.

In the past, Labour has at times treated "donations" as a dirty word, attacking National over its fundraising, targeting its donors and the use of fundraising events such as "Cabinet clubs" and the Prime Minister's fundraising dinners.

Kirton takes a more robust view of it. He says strong democracy in NZ requires strong political parties. "Every dollar we spend is given to us in some way, shape or form, so an avenue of normalising funding of political parties, somewhat like the North American and even Australian experience, is where I want to get to."

Labour got just $280,000 in donations of more than $1500 last year - almost a quarter of National's tally. Its financial records showed it had run at a deficit for at least the three years leading up to that.

Kirton says the party does get a lot of smaller donations too, but he has started approaching big donors. "We are re-engaging with the corporate sector and some of them are saying it's really good to be hearing from Labour again."

That approach has won him the approval of Williams. The Clark president sees Kirton as "particularly impressive".

The caucus is also a happier place. One senior staffer who worked on the last campaign said the party came perilously close to breaking up completely in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 election, much as British Labour was tearing itself asunder now.

"However bad you think it was, it was worse." Things had improved. "You now have a functioning front bench, and it is scoring hits. It used to be a good week for us if we were not coming under attack, now it's a good week when we get a hit on the Government. And there are more of them."

A history of the party by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon will be launched tomorrow night. The book has a hopeful outlook, saying many commentators might think "that, like most centenarians, the party will receive a telegram from the Queen before quietly shuffling off this mortal coil".

It points to Labour's ability to rally in the past - not least after Rogernomics - as a lesson in its ability to survive and even thrive.

Labour is in the process of reconstituting itself. Unfortunately that is proving harder than just adding water.