The Labour Party party is failing because it lacks vision.

That near heretical proposition was put to a Fabian Society meeting in Wellington last night by one of the left’s icons, economist, Brian Easton.

Even more provocatively, he argued that the Key-English Government had simply fine tuned the Clark Government’s economic policies and done little to reverse them preferring to promise to run the existing system better.

Out of this, he concluded that social democrats  in New Zealand had long lacked a political vision and that was why they had been unable to counter neo liberalism.

And because of that, the current Labour Opposition lacked a narrative to apply to its critiques of the current Government which might resonate with the electorate.

Easton said that the Clark Government had got into power in 1999 determined to repeal the more extreme elements of Roger Douglas’s neoliberalism which had seen policy favour the rich at the expense of Labour’s traditional poor and middle-class supporters.

“But it repealed only two-thirds of the extremism, after which it seemed to run out of ideas,” he said.

Why? he asked.

Some said it became more cautious as it lost electoral popularity, other said it lacked the intellectual grunt.

“You see this in the response of Labour in Opposition,” he said.


“The National Government has fine tuned Labour’s legacy but has done little to progress or reverse it.

“Labour in Opposition has largely agreed with them.

“Its characteristic criticism of the Government is to say that were they in government they would run the existing system better.

“It is rare for the Labour Opposition to set out a leadership position suggesting that the current system is not working properly and needs substantial change.

“Leadership has been sadly lacking.”

He gave as an example what happened that when something went wrong in the bureaucracy, a Minister, often the Prime Minister, regretted that it happened and told the bureaucrats to up their game.

“It’s a shrewd strategy because it covers Key in Teflon.

“Labour currently responds by blaming him but leaving no mark on the Teflon.

“The public are smart enough to appreciate that politician cannot be responsible for every mistake the bureaucrats make.

“In particular, Labour offers no narrative of why it is the politicians fault, just the not very plausible claim that they can do it better.

“There is little attempt to ram home the message that a goodly number of bureaucratic failures are because the public sector is under resourced, squeezed of funds without any reduction of the demands on it.”

Easton argued that the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980’s had done much to destroy trust within New Zealand communities replacing it with contractual relationships between individuals.

“The not entirely unexpected outcome is the need to impose costly layers of bureaucratic and legal regulation to enforce contracts.

“They call it accountability.

“That’s one reason for the failure of the neo-liberal changes to improve economic performance.

“The cost managing the trust-less economy has gone up markedly.

“We’re not getting any more output than we got in the trust economy.

“But a lot more output is going to monitoring people we do not trust.”

Easton said we might not be able to return to the levels of trust we once had.

“But we need to reaffirm social democrat values,” he said.

He said the Clark Labour Government might have affirmed some of those values by example, but it never articulated a rhetoric.

That left the community with no language to defend itself against a Government which squeezed the public sector in favour of tax cuts for individuals, particularly the better off, which was a denial of the need for the social regulation of thee economy for a more effective and humane society.

“There are many good things that the Clark-Cullen Government did,” he said.

“Sure it would have done more had it been re-elected for a fourth term.

“But its most lamentable failure was to fail to articulate the social democratic vision leaving those who inherited its mantle struggling about where they are going.”

Only one Labour MP, David Parker, was present for the speech but it is not likely to win immediate approval from the Labour Caucus.

Easton can be an unpredictable voice on the left — last year he supported the TPP — but his critique may find more support as people have time to digest it and think about it.

This may prove to have been an important speech.