Labour finally shakes off National's shadow a year on from the election

2018-11-03 05:01:25

OPINION: There was only ever going to be one star at the first gathering of the Labour Party faithful since the election.

The last time the party gathered like this they were staring down the barrel of election defeat with Andrew Little at the helm.

Jacinda Ardern is their hero and their savour.

So it is no surprise that she was the star on day two of the conference in a slot traditionally reserved for a former politician or prime minister – someone like Helen Clark, or former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who was flown over for National's annual conference earlier this year to boost Simon Bridges' leadership.

Ardern instead used that slot to interview a panel of young people on the burning issues troubling youth today – a discussion dominated by talk about the environment, climate change and mental health.

The message couldn't be clearer, that Labour was about looking forward not back.

Ardern herself couldn't miss the opportunity for a small dig at her opponents over the former Aussie Prime Minister's guest appearance at National's conference, noting that Labour was focusing on "the future not the past" for such a prime speaking slot.

Labour's run up to the weekend conference was far from smooth – there have been questions over Kiwibuild and it has been hammered over its decision to grant residency to a Czech criminal.

But none of that will dampen the mood of a party that is more popular now than it was on election night and, for the first time, more popular than National, after its opponents took a hit over its handling of the Jami-Lee Ross fiasco.

National's polling is said anecdotally to have sunk even lower since the recent One News Colmar Brunton Poll which put it behind Labour.

Bridges' ratings are said to have hit the floor, meanwhile, ramping up destabilising speculation of a leadership spill.

Labour's scars from nine years in opposition still run too deep for anyone to take it for granted that the golden run will continue.

But it means that for the first time since the election, Labour has been able to shake off National's shadow as the party that won more votes on election night and the legacy of John Key and Bill English recedes in voters' minds.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson's speech further rang the changes by announcing a focus on mental health as one of the five priority areas in Labour's first "wellbeing budget" next year, which is supposed to mark a radical shift away from the usual focus on fiscal measures alone as a barometer of success.

But Robertson couldn't resist rubbing the numbers in his opponents' face just a little – he told the conference the fundamentals of the economy are strong, the country had just experienced the strongest quarter of economic growth in two years, the government had delivered a sustainable surplus, government debt was low, unemployment was low at 4.5 per cent and "New Zealand is the best place in the world to do business".

The applause Robertson got from the delegates for those successes would have done a National finance minister proud.

The rest of the conference was closed to the media, presumably to avoid any possible breakout of friction or disunity that might mar the image of a victory party.

Friction will be inevitable; the party's grassroots activists, particularly its union base, will be feeling short-changed by some of the manifesto promises having to be parked as the price of a deal with NZ First.

And there will be bigger fights ahead – a capital gains tax, and industrial relations reforms being watered down (again because of NZ First), but one year in there is time to iron those out.

And after nine long years of brawling over a shrinking vote and leadership woes, the mood at this year's conference is mostly a mixture of relief and euphoria.

The party even agreed to a remit installing a rural representative on the national council, an issue that has apparently been raised many times before and never made it past a vote.

The Czech residency case and Kiwibuild questions aren't enough to shatter the good humour – those are the sort of problems that are part and parcel of being in Government and there will be plenty more of those between now and next year too.

Even Party President Nigel Hawarth's warning to beware of attacks from a "desperate and cornered" National Party hasn't dented their spirits.

Labour's party faithful and MPs are too busy revelling in the fact that the tables have so thoroughly turned from the last time they gathered like this and they were the "desperate and cornered" ones.

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