Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Labour has lost its soul

Last week, a Chris Trotter column in the Dominion-Post lamented the demise of the Alliance, because they had provided a "soul" for the previous Labour government; a voice at the cabinet table reminding them why they were in power. The "jobs jolt" is I think proof of this; an example of Labour losing its soul, sucking up to business and forgetting what it is supposed to stand for.

OK, so most of it (including the much-reviled plan to force people to move to find work) was in fact a reannouncement of programmes that had existed for years, but it is still disheartening to see a supposedly "centre-left" social-democratic government courting the right by beneficiary-bashing. And "beneficiary-bashing" is the right term for this, given the mean-spirited nature of the changes. Work-tests for 55-59 year-olds on the "transition to retirement" benefit? NZFirst calls them "ridiculous and humiliating", and for once I agree with them. Given the amount of discrimination people over 50 face in finding a job, I can't actually see it as doing much good. Forcing people to move to a better job market? Sorry, but that is unreasonable. Where you live is not something the government ought to be dictating to people.

Instead of hitting beneficiaries with the coercive power of the state, the government should be enabling them to make their own choices. You should be able to walk into a WINZ (or whatever they've rebranded as this week) office and say "I'm on the dole, there's no work for me here, and I want to move to Auckland to improve my chances" and get a no-strings attached grant to do so (or a "get a job in six months or this will have to be paid back" style "loan"). Or (and this also is becoming a standard rant) remove the harsh and punitive regime of clawbacks and standdowns which stops people from transitioning into employment through part-time work. As for the elderly, I'm not sure what can be done, but forcing them to attend "training courses" where you practice "job skills" such as fingerpainting is definately not the answer.

Labour needs to remember that they are not the only game in town anymore. Under MMP, we have choices, ways of punishing a government without electing the other bunch. Unless they wake up and remember their roots - and their core constituency - Labour may find itself in a much less powerful position with respect to its prospective coalition partners next time around.