Leggett on Labour

An interesting profile of Nick Leggett by Guyon Espiner in The Listener:

Just before 7pm on a wet Wednesday in August, the doors close on a wood-panelled room at the back of a central city restaurant. Inside are some of the leading lights of the left. They’ve held leadership positions and Cabinet posts. They’ve been chiefs of staff and speechwriters, strategists, hellraisers and fundraisers. …

Over the next few hours, the table talk buzzes around but returns to a common theme. The people in this room see themselves as more electable than the ones in the caucus room. They think Little has veered too far left, are scathing of the relationship with the Greens and think is heading over the cliff for a fourth consecutive defeat.

As the evening wears on and the beer and wine loosen the lips, it becomes more and more obvious: they see themselves as the Mainstream Labour Party in Exile and, tonight at least, their champion is . He may be standing for mayor of Wellington, but having resigned from Labour, he’s also sending his old party a message: this is what Labour might look like if it actually wanted to win.

I know lots and lots of former staffers, and even MPs, who are distressed with the direction Labour has gone in, and the state it is in.

The Utopian Strand, Leggett says with a sigh. It sounds like a young-adult dystopian novel, but according to Leggett, it’s the dominant faction of the Labour Party right now. It’s May when we first meet for this story and Leggett has recently announced his departure from Labour after 20 years of membership.

“There’s the Utopian Strand and the Pragmatists. I fit into the Pragmatists, but it’s a much smaller group now,” he explains. “The Utopians are quite happy to sit in Opposition and have their positions validated by a small echo chamber on social media and in activist groups. They don’t really seem interested in the much harder task of actually building a plank for government.”

He identifies another closely related strand. “The Hate John Key Movement. They have failed to impress for eight years. They need to say why they are better than John Key and why they have got ideas that are more compelling.” He sees Labour’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a classic example of caving in to bloggers and tweeters rather than preparing for government. “If you are arguing from a perspective that says, ‘Yep, we are thinking about when we are in government’, their stance was wrong. I think that we should be a free-trading nation.”

Very few supporters of free trade left in Labour. Clark gone, Goff going, Shearer on the outer. Jones gone.

Leggett says these kinds of positions have led to the exit of almost all of the business-friendly MPs, including Shane Jones, Phil Goff and Clayton Cosgrove. Others have been marginalised, such as David Shearer, who was sanctioned by Little for his support of the TPP, and Nash, who has been refused permission to speak at Leggett’s dinner.

The treatment of Nash – who scored a rare Labour win in the provinces in 2014 – particularly alarms him. “Labour is dead outside the main centres now. It’s just not on the radar of provincial areas,” he says. “Labour dropped to 25% last election and Stuart Nash won Napier, but he’s not held up as a champion. In fact, you are viewed with suspicion if you win votes.”

You’d think they’d see those who can win seats such as Nash and Davis as role models.

Leggett says that mentality leads to an unrealistic election strategy. “These are people who think they can get into government with 32% of the vote. When Helen Clark lost, Labour got 34%, so they are not even close. I want to be part of a movement that says: we are a 40%-plus party and we are taking New Zealand with us. We don’t want to be part of a two- or three-headed coalition. We want to be the leader.”

Labour now thinks 30% in a poll is a great result. National thinks 50% is a great result.

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