Labour is the party of housing and anti-immigration for the 2017 general election. That became clear at the party’s election year Congress held in Wellington at the weekend.

The most interesting and meaningful speech at Labour's weekend congress wasn't given by Andrew Little, or even Jacinda Ardern or Grant Robertson - but by the party's general secretary Andrew Kirton. For although the parliamentarians gave their usual passionate speeches and announced some new lines and policies, Kirton's speech was the most candid and useful for understanding the state of the party and where it is going.

Kirton's briefing to party activists and MPs provided a lot of interesting detail about Labour's campaign, but the most important was the polling information provided to Labour by market research company UMR on issues concerning voters, of which housing is at the top of the list.

This is all very well covered in Audrey Young's Labour shares details of its shoe-leather election campaign techniques. Here's the key part: "housing is the issue concerning voters the most. It is followed by inequality, poverty, immigration and then the economy. At the last election, 2014, housing rated the fifth and immigration did not rate at all in the top five issues. Poverty was highest, followed by inequality, unemployment, the economy and then housing. Housing didn't feature at all in 2008 or 2011."

Therefore, it wasn't surprising that Andrew Little's congress speech was strongly-focused on housing, signaling that this will be Labour's number one focus over the next four months. Covering Little's speech, Patrick Gower explained that "Labour's election emphasis is clear: housing, housing - and more housing" - see: Housing is Andrew Little's big shot at glory.


According to Gower, Little combined the issue of housing unaffordability with inequality: "Today's theme was 'getting a fair shot'. Little mentioned 'fair shot' over and over. He spoke of 'a place to call home, a place to raise your children - the Kiwi dream' - and says getting a 'fair shot' at that house is fading."

Labour already has a cluster of housing policies that it's trying to convince voters will fix the affordability crisis. And now it's got a new one to throw into the mix - clamping down on property investors and landlords getting tax relief for the properties that they rent out without making a profit. Currently such losses can be added into other revenue streams, so that less tax is paid. Labour will reduce the ability for this to occur. This is all well-explained in Claire Trevett's Labour to end tax breaks for landlords/property investors.

Of course Labour's policy hasn't gone unchallenged, and Trevett also reports on the various criticisms from National and the Property Institute in Labour Party's focus on tax breaks 'cynical'. Most of this criticism boils down to an argument that the policy will discourage investment in rental properties, and will hurt ordinary people who are investing.

Vernon Small also deals with some criticisms of the policy in Labour targets housing, while Ngaro takes aim at his own foot, and points out that "Its impact may be limited. The party shied away from ring-fencing individual properties, which it was advised was impractical. And the ring-fencing only applies to residential investments, not other property assets, which creates an uneven playing field elsewhere."

Labour's focus on limiting immigration

Labour gave very few hints in the weekend about its highly-anticipated new immigration policy, which will be announced within the next few weeks. Little has already signaled that it will involve a significant reduction to current immigrant numbers but Patrick Gower emphasised that they are treading carefully on this topic, with Little choosing not to mention it in his speech: "The party faithful are clearly nervous - it was left to finance spokesman Grant Robertson to explain that halting immigration is not about race. Immigration is total political dynamite and any mention by Little would have superseded the housing talk so it is easy to see why it was kept on the backburner - for now. It has the ability to super-charge Labour's message on housing - but just not in front of the party faithful."

In fact, Labour's caution on the immigration issue is so great that Robertson's speech contained a remarkable criticism of those who seek to mix immigration issues up with race or fear-mongering about immigrants. Robertson said: "anyone who makes it about immigrants, or indeed about their race, must be called out for what they are doing as being wrong and against the values of Labour and of New Zealanders."

Robertson spoke as if Labour had never launched its "Chinese Sounding Names" campaign against supposed foreign house buyers. But Claire Trevett covered this apparent hypocrisy, reporting: "Asked afterward how he reconciled that with Labour's own actions, such as using real estate data and Chinese surnames to try to highlight foreign buyers, Robertson said the party learned a lot from the reaction to that" - see: Labour's Finance Spokesman Grant Robertson: 'We can't be scared to have a debate'. Robertson is quoted as saying "I think Phil [Twyford] has been very clear he learned from that, that it didn't come out the way intended."

His speech did, however, give a bit more detail about how Labour intends to cut back on immigration. Trevett reports: "Robertson said the student visas under scrutiny were those for 'low quality' courses which were effectively simply an easy path to residency."


Other policies of significance

Health is also shaping up to be a fairly significant part of Labour's campaign, and in the weekend the party announced a new policy in this area - see Tracy Watkins' Labour promises a nurse in every secondary school. And typical of Labour's new approach of trying to personalise their policy announcements and speeches, see Claire Trevett's The impact youth suicide had on Jacinda Ardern.

And even the tourism sector is getting some attention from Labour - see Matthew Hutching and Conor Whitten's Little promises tourist levy under Labour in first term.

Overall, Labour's congress appears to have been relatively successful - as summed up nicely in Sam Sachdeva's Cold day but warm tone at Labour congress. More succinctly, Labour supporter Barnaby Bennett‏ tweeted, "After 9 years labour has finally done it. Positive headlines on both stuff and nzherald at the same time."

But perhaps the most evocative summary of the conference mood comes in Claire Trevett's column, Labour leader Andrew Little tries out new f-word. Here's the key point: "Labour leader Andrew Little's big speech at the party's election Congress was brought to you by the letter F. If last year was all about the Kiwi Dream, this time it was f-words. There were the perennial favourites: fair, future, 'families' (usually the 'Kiwi' genus), and fields (as in level playing fields). But the main word was 'fresh'. Little used it time after time - a bid to paint Labour as fresh and new compared with fusty old National. 'Fresh' was the focus of the entire menu at the conference.

Finally, preceding the conference on Saturday two leading political editors published their very good analyses of the critical point Labour and Little are currently at - see Audrey Young's Andrew Little has to regain his confidence before he can lift his own troops, and Tracy Watkins' Andrew Little stays on message and sounds off-key.