Hit by the here and now

As discussion continue to swirl about the UBI, and Labour finds its next big idea knifed and destroyed through their lack of foresight, Vernon Small explains just how predictable it all was.

Pity is not an emotion you would normally spare for politicians.

But you had to feel sorry for Labour – and in particular its finance spokesman Grant Robertson – for the blitz of critical publicity that greeted a single idea in its “Future of Work” conference.

It was set up to be a future-focused and broad-ranging look at the changing nature of work, the impact of technology on the workplace and how we adjust the law and the welfare system to cope while ensuring greater job security in uncertain times.

But instead the coverage was overwhelmingly focused on the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) including the affordability – or otherwise – of notional schemes proposed by others, or constructed by opponents, and then shot down in a hail of spreadsheets.

It was as predictable a result as you could ever imagine. If you fly a kite in a  thunderstorm there is a good chance it will get struck my lightening. The fact that Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern didn’t see this coming say as much about their political radar as it does about Labour’s political advisers.

Labour can’t escape all the blame. It was entirely predictable that putting up an idea for discussion that would, in its most extreme form, radically change the wage, benefit and tax system would attract the lion’s share of attention.

But there wasn’t nearly enough pre-conference preparation from Labour on that score.

It should have laboured to the point of exhaustion that the ideas about to be discussed were blue-sky not Labour red. It wasn’t the only example of Labour flat-footedness – or shoot-itself-in-the-footedness – this week … but more of that later.

Meanwhile Prime Minister John Key gave them a lesson in soundbite-ology, merely saying the idea was “barking mad” before quickly moving on.

Given a UBI isn’t, and might never be, Labour policy – and also given there are as many variants as there are economists with ideas – it is easy to see why Labour luminaries came away from the conference peeved about the various “costings” of versions of policies it had not adopted.

If it isn’t policy, and it might not be adopted then why the dying in the ditch by Rob Salmond defending it? Labour put up the idea and wanted a discussion and when that discussion didn’t go the way they wanted then they got all nasty about it all.

The fact that Labour had no numbers, no idea, and no comeback was telling. This is a party that is still unfit for government.

[T]he stream of “experts” costing the hypothetical concept took no prisoners, nor much note of any nuances. Nor did they take much account of the drawbacks of a UBI, already covered off in the discussion paper, or that its writers concluded the Gareth Morgan option probably would not work. Nor that the closest Labour got to endorsing the policy was to “investigate new models of income security for New Zealand, including considering a limited trial of a universal basic income-type system in a town or region”.

Robertson tried to redress the balance this week, with an opinion piece highlighting the other issues discussed under the umbrella of the Future of Work Commission, especially the rapidly changing nature of work and the need for education to adapt to it.

But the political attacks, in the guise of “costings” have already landed and done their worst.

They were able to do their worst because Labour went kite-flying in a storm.

“How,” some of Labour’s chin-strokers mused this week, “can you ever have a long-term debate about policy options when that happens?”

And they have a point. The off-piste attacks Labour suffered this week impoverish the public policy debate.

But the issue is also one of political management and you can’t blame National for launching a pre-emptive strike on Labour’s key policy programme.

For that Labour needs to look to its own recent record.

For instance, on a day when Labour’s view on the flag effectively won the day, what use did Sue Moroney think it would do launching a twitter attack on someone with a “flash beach house” flying the failed alternative flag?

If Opposition MPs wants a lesson in message management they could do worse than use, as a workshop for young players, Paula Bennett’s efforts on Tuesday 

She used reporters’ questions about Chester Borrows’ driving, given she was in the car when he allegedly ran over a protesters foot, to segue into the aggressive tactics of the protesters, attack lines seen online, the growing unpleasantness of social media and finally to the awful and disgraceful threats she had received on Twitter some two weeks ago.

From potential sympathy for a protester at the wheels of an MP to sympathy for an MP. Cynical, maybe, but you can’t help but be impressed.

That’s why National win and Labour loses. Labour has only themselves to blame.

If brains were dynamite, Labour’s brains trust wouldn’t have enough to blow their noses.


– Fairfax



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  • niggly

    Good article by Vernon Small, his observations are spot on.

    It must really grate him (being Labour-friendly and all etc), to see Labour’s credibility in tatters and is largely self-inflicted too!

    Especially when Mr Small, and a handful of other lefties, from the likes of leftie’s like Dimpost’s Danyl to centre-lefties like Phil Quinn & Josie Pagani, who point these things out then get shot down and attacked by Labour for doing so.

    I think the likes of Vernon Small would like to write Labour (and Little) off for election 2017 … but can’t bring themselves to do so this early in the piece. Despite all the signs ….

  • Second time around

    Ditching the whole current tax and benefit system because robots will take over a few jobs next decade could make sense to a gathering of Labour faithful with their trade union colleagues. To other people it does seem barking mad and there is no getting around it.

  • Muffin

    Why does their future of work conference seem to be a future of welfare trouble shoot. Unemployment is as low as it can go until the unemployables are left no option but to work something beneath their expectations. Then they might insist their kids go to school everyday, make sure they have lunch everyday, keep out of trouble everyday, so they have more chances than their parents. The whole non socialist world works this way

  • Rick H

    Has Labour actually done any work over the last 7 years?
    7 years in opposition, and they still have nothing in the way of a credible policy to offer.
    Everything they announce is just stupid.

    Perhaps they have spent every waking moment for the last 7 years doing nothing other than trying to “land one” on John Key.

    And we are paying them to do this.