Labour gears up for the 2020 election

8:58 am on 2 December 2019

Power Play - Gone is "Let's Do This" - now it's "We're Doing This" as Labour gears up for the 2020 election.

Claire Szabo (left) and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Labour's new party president Claire Szabo (left) and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the party's annual conference which was held in Whanganui at the weekend. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

The backdrop to Jacinda Ardern's leader's speech was a wall of policy achievements under the coalition, a not-so-subtle message to critics of the government and its "Year of Delivery" - or not.

Labour is having to mount a fightback against a strong opposition - the signs of which were apparent at the weekend's annual conference.

Not only does Ms Ardern believe Labour can win the 2020 election but she told the star struck crowd Labour won in 2017 - a statement that will incense National. Labour won the Treasury benches but not the party vote, something that still irks National MPs.

But no-one can afford to look back, it's all about the 2020 election that will be held within the next 12 months.

State schools have been given an early Christmas present with $400 million to spend on upgrades; it's a policy that will affect every community and families will be able to see tangible results, and in government terms relatively quickly, clearly a bonus as the party readies for next year.

It also put the flesh on the bones of the Finance Minister Grant Robertson's non-announcement the day before: "We'll be spending a lot more money but we're not going to say on what or how much".

And it heeds the recent calls for stimulus from the Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr, and from the construction industry for more certainty about big projects past the next few years. And it won't do Labour's relationship with the teaching sector any harm either.

The government's already been making large capital investments but with interest rates so low and warning clouds on the economic horizon, borrowing more money will help to stimulate the economy and give it some election year cash to throw around. Grant Robertson said Cabinet had committed to a boost to infrastructure as part of the short to medium term spending plan.

In a bid to convince the electorate they were sound economic managers Labour and the Greens signed up to rules limiting spending and debt, and committing to running surpluses, before the 2017 election. Mr Robertson has already loosened those rules by introducing a band, rather than a set figure, for debt in relation to GDP, which will give him more room to move.

Labour justifies the extra borrowing as necessary to "rebuild the nation" after nine years of neglect under National, however that well worn argument has a use-by date of its own.

Ms Ardern took aim at National in her speech saying that with "crises" in health, education and housing, its main policy platform of tax cuts in 2017 "did not sit well".

National's leader Simon Bridges is running a disciplined line that New Zealanders are worse off financially under the coalition and has pledged to at least make automatic tax threshold changes if in government after 2020; Labour is already laying the groundwork for its pitch to voters.

New party president

Labour's been under intense scrutiny for its culture and ability to handle complaints about seriously bad behaviour; the heat had gone out of it in the last month or so after two reviews were ordered but the party conference once again brought attention to the events of the past year.

No-one at the conference could ignore the fact they were electing a new president as a direct result of the party's handling of sexual assault allegations and the Prime Minister addressed the elephant in the room in her opening remarks on Friday night.

There was also a special session run by MP Poto Williams to educate party members about dealing with abusive or inappropriate behaviour.

But everyone was on script whenever it came up, the priority was "people not politics", there was "a process underway" and the party could learn from what had happened.

And having a young woman (or youngish as the 41-year-old Ms Szabo puts it) heading the party wing with Ms Ardern as leader and prime minister is not going to hurt Labour as it continues its self-rehabilitation. What the leadership will be alert to though is any fall out from the Māori wing with the defeat of Tane Phillips, the senior vice president.

When endorsing Mr Phillips as a candidate for the party presidency the chair of Labour's Māori Council Te Kaunihera Māori (TKM), Rudy Taylor, said the "time had come for a Māori to ... step up to lead our party" and furthermore "electing a Māori to the presidency would be progressive and a reflection of partnership for the Labour Party".

But in a dramatic and unusual show Mr Taylor took to the conference floor straight after Ms Szabo was declared the winner, declaring TKMs full and unequivocal support.

A highly visible and political move to head off any such speculation Māori members were disgruntled by the result.

But there are huge expectations on Labour to deliver for Māori, after sweeping all seven Māori seats in 2017 and installing Kelvin Davis as deputy leader.

The last word goes to Tane Phillips who took to Twitter to say he'd have the new President's back and he'd accepted the "will of the membership".

A direct message though for Labour ... "but we do need as a party to look at our treaty partnership with Tangata Whenua".

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