As world politics turns to progress, Andrew Little is stuck in the politics of regression, writes Joe Pagani

As it gathers for its election year congress, Labour should be running down a weak and beleaguered National government. It should be polling in the late forties, while National bleeds over countless crises from housing, to child poverty, to an unproductive economy.

Instead it is staring down the barrel of a fourth consecutive defeat – unseen since the 60s. Such an embarrassing loss, against – let’s be honest, a lacklustre incumbent – would be a devastating blow for Labour. More importantly, the hundreds of thousands of Kiwis who depend on a Labour government for a better chance in life would be the ones to miss out most. And yet, a fourth loss is almost certain, with the only alternative a cobbled together coalition, hardly likely to last the three years.

Andrew Little is desperate for votes. Labour is below 30 percent in the polls, almost identical to its polling in the 2014 election – which led to Labour’s worst result since 1925.

Instead of turning to the bold progressive policies which have earned Labour votes in the past, Little has taken the “easy” route to victory – the politics of negativity. It started when Little ran his leadership campaigns on abandoning progressive policies like raising the retirement age and a capital gains tax.

The politics of negativity continued through his first year as leader, with the belittling of Chinese people who had committed the criminal sin of owning a house. It metastasised when Little rejected the TPP – a brainchild of progressive leaders like Barack Obama and Helen Clark. And it finally came to its natural conclusion: drastic cuts to immigration, without any clear plan of how to achieve them.

Labour is taking a populist gamble to peel off votes from New Zealand First and National. Whether or not these voters will be put off by Labour’s socially liberal policies remains to be seen.

If you subscribe to the belief that Labour doesn’t need more than 30 percent of the vote to govern, and could win through a three headed coalition with the Greens and New Zealand First, this logic still holds. Little needs coalition partners, and both Green and New Zealand First have harsh policies on restricting immigration. If the proposed drastic cuts to immigration don’t win Labour votes, it will earn the respect of its immigration partners, and make coalition building easier.

Little is far from alone in the politics of negativity, in the UK Jeremy Corbyn trades on the politics of nostalgia, and the politics of fear. While Corbyn differs from Little in many policy areas, they share a principle of regressive politics. Corbyn decries the “neoliberal elite” and calls for a return to the “good old days” where the government owned the railways, and the Soviet Union acclaimed the evils of capitalist democracy.

Corbyn currently sits 20 points behind the Conservative party, as UK Labour gears for their worst election result since WWII.

Both Little and Corbyn have blundered. They have tried to encapsulate the negative politics of nostalgia that propelled Donald Trump into the White House and Britain out of the European Union. Instead, they have branded themselves as regressive, just as progressivism is bouncing back.

In France, Emmanuel Macron has won the presidency as an outsider, campaigning on an unashamedly pro-trade, pro-immigration, progressive ticket. In the US, Donald Trump languishes with record-low approval ratings, facing an energised left. Across the developed world, leaders like Justin Trudeau, Matteo Renzi, Macron and Martin Schulz show us what bold and progressive left wing parties can look like.

To win an election, and win it more convincingly than cobbling together a coalition from 30 percent, Labour needs to be the party of inclusive progress. It needs to promote trade, while sharing the wealth from trade. It needs more policies like its three years of tertiary education, and less railing against the evils of gift card expiry dates.

And yes, it is also possible to tackle the flaws in our immigration system from a progressive lens. Little could have championed the many working class immigrants that Labour exists to represent. He could have railed against the companies that exploit fake student visas, or pay migrant workers poor wages. He could have championed moving people to the regions and not Auckland. Both are far more effective and far less crude than arbitrarily cutting 50,000 immigrants.

Andrew Little and Jeremy Corbyn appeal to the politics of nostalgia, and resistance to change. While Little and Corbyn parade their outrage at the injustices of the world, true progressive leaders are working to end them. It is this progressive leadership that the New Zealand left needs.

Joe Pagani has worked in politics, government, and political advocacy, and is a Labour Party member

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