Labour prepares to be prepared for power

“We’re looking forwards rather than backwards” – Chris Hipkins

Humiliated and humbled in last year’s election, Labour has spent its first months back in opposition licking its wounds.

At the party’s caucus retreat this week – a gathering of its MPs at a remote location to strategise for the year ahead – it promised a comeback.

Labour’s shift in status is underscored by the retreat’s change in venue, back at the Brackenridge Country Retreat in Martinborough they had used until the 2020 election swelled their ranks beyond its capacity. 

It was also delayed from its usual slot in January or early February, in part due to a shorter summer break and to allow more time for reflection.

Leader Chris Hipkins’ speech welcoming his MPs signalled optimism the coalition government would be its own undoing, and set out his three priorities for the rest of the term: being a good opposition; fully preparing policies with costings, timings and implementation plans; and rebuilding the movement with fundraising, recruiting, and connecting with communities.

As a mainstream party, Labour must also present as economically credible – and internal disagreements over tax policy will need to be ironed out ahead of the next election.

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The refocus also comes at a dynamic time in the political landscape: the three-headed coalition facing three parties in opposition, each competing for a slice of the electoral pie. 

Te Pāti Māori has increasingly stolen the headlines with its often extreme rhetoric, while the Greens have made no bones about their aspiration to become the dominant opposition voice – underlined by Chlöe Swarbrick as she ascended to the co-leadership last weekend. It is a lofty and perhaps unlikely ambition, but one Labour should be aware of as it repositions.

University of Otago PhD candidate Michael Swanson is researching the role of opposition in New Zealand’s political sphere. He says Labour is aware it needs to reconcile with its loss last year – but that requires an admission it got things wrong “which is a really hard thing for a political party and political leaders to do”. 

He says Labour must win back the centre vote.

“There was an issue of people going ‘I don’t know what Labour are doing for me’.

“Chris Hipkins should probably be sitting there going, ‘what are the things we didn’t do that people were telling us we should have done, and would that work if we put that back on the table?”

He says the party also needs to consider who best represents its constituents and whether that person is Hipkins – as well as wooing new talent, including from high-profile areas. 

“They should be probably looking at who in union movements might be primed for coming in and making that immediate impact, who are out there in the teaching professions – high profile people that could come in and really make an impact quickly.”

Hipkins has promised to deliver two key speeches in the coming weeks – one on the party’s values and another on its vision. The fact he considers that necessary illustrates the trouble Labour is in.

In this week’s Focus on Politics RNZ deputy political editor Craig McCulloch takes a look at the difficulties and dilemmas facing Labour as it readjusts to life in opposition.

Listen free to Focus on Politics on Apple Podcasts, on  Spotify, on iHeart Radio or wherever you get your podcasts. 

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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