Labour displays the proper tension between winning and leading. Shearer displays the awkward tension between leading and controlling.
Labour’s tendency to shoot itself in the foot with earnest but politically dangerous policy ideas causes many forehead-smacking moments.
The “man ban” was such a moment; an idea that was idealistic, problem-solving and internally consistent, yet also elitist and discriminatory.
To Labour’s credit, this is what we should expect of political Parties – a constant struggle between how much they should lead and how much they should reflect popular sentiment (as a principle in itself, and/or to win power).
Labour sits on the fulcrum of the choice political Parties have to represent the widest possible public sentiment or to represent a sharply defined ideology.
New Zealand Labour rarely lets winning majority public support act as its starting point. It starts with what it thinks is the right thing to do. It then intensely shapes those policies by the political reality of getting voter support.
It results in a tension which is alive every day of the Party’s existence. If Labour allowed itself to be governed by what the media and public majority thinks, then it would lose its point of existence.
So how to handle that tension?
- Make the tension a known and valued quality. Even while disagreeing, MPs and Party members need to repeat the mantra that this is how the Party works – inspired ideas in, debated and shaped, and practical ideas emerge.
- Don’t allow the media to define differences as a leadership issue. By squashing the remit Shearer bowed to the leadership frame demanded by media and others who don’t have Labour’s best interests at heart. Strong and confident leadership would have shrugged shoulders, said variety was the strength of the Party, and then worked behind the scenes to make sure the policy didn’t get voted in at the conference, and/or was replaced by some other ideas.
- Merge policy generation and its expression with the experiences of real-life New Zealanders. This is the key to easing the impact of the lead or win tension. Even radical ideas can be accepted when they emerge from widely experienced problems, and are expressed in popularly understood terms. The execution of this approach is admittedly the tough part.