“Labour values” are more than a talking point

If there’s a sure bet in New Zealand politics (besides “don’t rule out Winston”) it’s this: when a Labour candidate wants to reassure a Labour audience that they’ve got the right stuff, they’ll say one thing: “My values are Labour values.”

It sets the bar. It works for anyone vaguely Labour-affiliated. The problem is that’s because it’s empty.

The first issue is the gutting of language in the age of spin doctors. Words like “fairness” have lost all clarity. A leader of literally any political party can say “I believe the government has a role in providing housing to the poorest families” and it could mean anything from building 10,000 state houses to public-private partnerships to privatising almost everything – and they usually don’t explain. It’s about the soundbite.

Obviously no one wins in the game of thick policy documents at ten paces, but there’s no point speaking plain English if you still sound like every other player on the field.

Besides, “Labour values” is an amorphous thing, thanks to its colourful background. How do you nail down any foundational, enduring ideology for a party which gave the country Michael Joseph Savage and Roger Douglas?

You can play No True Labour, rejecting the bits which don’t fit your Platonic party image, but I think it’s much easier to acknowledge that Labour has screwed the pooch in the past – and needs to define itself for now and the future.

There’s an argument that “Labour values” don’t have to mean something concrete. Plenty of people think the important stuff, “what voters really care about”, is a vision, and a set of policies to get you there (or screw the vision, people just want policies, and vice versa.)

I disagree. Everything – vision, policies, even how the party functions and who holds key roles (and who wants to be a member of your party, or stand as its candidate) – must rest on a strong, clear idea of why you’re actually here. Or you’re flailing from day one.

Plus, it means there’s no such thing as a side issue. There’s one direction and one driving force, and every little bit builds the picture of who you are.

If one core value is that government has the power and duty to support people against the exploitative power of the market, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the Living Wage, health and safety, skills training or benefits people can survive on.

If one core value is that life-long access to education is a human right which cannot be undermined by the pursuit of profit, you can talk about free tertiary education, rural mobile libraries, or subsidising early childhood education.

Even policies which only directly benefit a small group “matter” when they show you’re driven by well-defined principles.

Voters don’t have to check where you stand on any particular issue when they know what’s at your core. We don’t have to ask which way ACT or the Greens will fall on any particular issue. We just know who favours tax cuts and who’ll save the dolphins. (National is a weird exception at the moment, torn between rightwing true-believers and poll-driven power-for-the-sake-of-power types.)

Labour hasn’t got its core sorted out. The policy platform is a good first step – but it’s too long, and separates out the economy and social development and education as separate things, developed by separate working groups, without a checklist of assumptions and principles to tie it all together.

So, where do we start? Even awful corporate mission statements take a lot of work to develop (unless you cheat.) How do you refine and condense a huge set of ideas – the very government of our country – into a simple, unequivocal set of principles?

I don’t have all the answers. But I think we could do worse than start with a speech given by a certain aspiring Labour man just last year:

It is about justice.  In fact it is about injustice.  I cannot stand injustice.  And when I talk about injustice I am talking about when the powerful take advantage of the weak.  And we have a society and a country where increasingly we are allowing the powerful to take advantage of the weak, the economically powerful, the privileged taking advantage of those who don’t have that privilege and that power.

And it sticks in my craw and it is wrong and it is against every Labour principle that we all know.

My values – and I hope, Labour’s values – are about standing with the disempowered against the powerful. Rebalancing the scales. Challenging the systems that oppress us. What are yours?

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