Disclaimer: This letter is not connected in any way to any of the organisations/entities I serve and am connected with. It is my own personal opinion and I am speaking as myself. It is also not an indication of any personal connection to any political party. I am not a member of any party and view my role as a Christian minister as one that compels me to be as non-partisan as possible even though I, like many, do have leanings towards particular views. To see what informs my political views, read this. This particular letter is written in the interest of strong democracy and with that in mind, the need for a strengthened opposition to keep the government accountable (that is the purpose of the opposition) and the fact that I see a gap for a certain sector of New Zealand voters that needs to be recognised.
Dear New Zealand Labour Party,
I’m not sure if this is the best time to be offering any thoughts to you as I’m sure it still hurts after Saturday night – especially since you have lost some good colleagues, but I wish to share some thoughts. I am not affiliated with any party so this is not coming from a winner who is gloating or a loser who wishes to play any sort of blame game. Please hear this with the generous heart it comes from and the desire to see the current opposition strengthened.
On Saturday New Zealand spoke. In so doing, our nation declared the National Party to be their preferred governing party by a clear margin while your party suffered one of the worst defeats ever. There will be much dissecting going on to work out what happened. The worst of it already involves some talking about vote rigging and vitriol about the nature of New Zealand voters such as not caring about the poor, being selfish and it goes on. There’s blame of the media happening and, inevitably, Kim Dotcom is being held up as the reason for the left’s poor showing. Some will dismiss the Labour defeat by pointing to the MMP system and the ‘left block’ but even that did not fare so well. Others will point to Labour’s recent revolving leadership and talk about factional fighting – political blood may well be spilled with this in mind. There will be those that point to a lack of working more closely with the Green Party and others will point to working too closely with them. In among it all I would like to offer my own humble thoughts – simply because I think that in the interest of our nation, it is important for you to be a strong party. New Zealand needs a functioning, cohesive opposition in order for our democracy to be healthy and to keep the government accountable to working in the interests of all New Zealanders, and the facts are that National won’t govern forever so you need to be a healthy party for that time when you are, again, the government.
I’m going to begin with a bold statement and then make my case from there. I believe New Zealand is more socially conservative than many in the political and media realm realise. I believe that was reflected in the vote. Putting aside economics, social conservatives could vote for National, New Zealand First, Conservatives, United Future and the Maori Party and not feel like they were acting contrary to their value system. Whether those places are truly socially conservative is a matter for discussion, but the perception is that if you are socially conservative, there is a place in those parties for you.
National has done a good job of creating a broad umbrella where social conservatives and social liberals can live side by side and both feel validated within the party. The same goes for their economic conservatives and liberals. Labour used to be able to do the same – that is no longer the case. Labour used to be a place where social conservatives and social liberals could co-exist around an agreed economic direction in terms of welfare and job creation. They also largely agreed on health and education direction. It was a party for the working class and the working class combines both social conservatives and liberals. But ask yourself, where does an economically center-left social conservative who agrees with things like free access to health and education now go to find a political home? The answer is that there is no such place.
Whether it is palatable or not to those within the party and whether it is accurate or not, Labour is seen to be the party who drove through prostitution law reform, civil unions, gay marriage, the so-called ‘anti smacking law’ and it is seen as the major party that has and would liberalise abortion policy. Accurate or not, it is also perceived as the party that would push other things such as euthenasia and gay adoption. Now, each of these represents contestable ideas and I’m not offering an opinion in any direction on any of them, but ask yourself, if you were a social conservative on any of those issues, how comfortable has it been to exist within Labour? None of those issues are the ‘core business’ of Labour but they are the very things that have driven away social conservatives. Labour MPs who have spoken out against those issues or expressed their unease over them have seemed to be the odd ones out and very often maligned even though those MPs completely align with Labour’s roots.
In short, Labour has ostracised socially conservative center-left voters because it has gone boots and all into issues that are not its core business. The question needs to be asked, what does Labour stand for? Labour then needs to truly stand for that without distraction on issues that are not its core business. Many center-left social conservatives yearn for a political home that allows their views to be heard without being maligned. Many of them are either not voting or they’re uncomfortably voting for parties they feel represent and value their social views even if they don’t completely line up economically or on health and education. It’s happening because they believe that those social values trump their other views.
Labour has an opportunity to get back to its working class roots – to represent the workers and their families (health and education are vital to their well-being) – both socially conservative and liberal. That focus still resonates with Kiwis. The question is, are you able to get there or is the party too bogged down in factional fighting between activists representing their own interest groups rather than truly hearing the voice of the wider New Zealand public?
I have a lot of respect for you and your hard working MPs, as I do for National and its MPs. You have an opportunity to gain the nation’s respect, and again build a movement around Labour’s core business that captures the imagination of New Zealanders (both socially conservative and liberal) rather than a cobbled together coalition of special interest groups that continually internally fight with each other. Please take the opportunity.
I offer no thought on leadership contests within the party as I think the issues go deeper than that.
I watch with interest to see what path Labour takes in the coming months and years. I pray for the good of our country, the good of our government and the good of the opposition that needs to keep it accountable. I pray that all of our elected representatives would lead with wisdom, honesty, and integrity. May you be fulfilled in what you do and may you represent our nation well.
Reverend Francis Ritchie