Anyone for a fair go? Labour looks for a line

The head count for Helen Kelly’s address at the Labour party conference was 150. Not a great show of solidarity with the party’s brothers and sisters in the union movement.

One explanation: Kelly, who is Council of Trade Unions secretary, was on at 9.15am on Sunday after the usual late-night politicking and drinking. An insult, yes, but not a snub. That was the rationale.

Rather more had got out of bed by the time of Phil Goff’s foot-stamper and whistler three hours later.

But it might say something deeper about 2010s Labour.

Labour is no longer in thrall to the unions as Damien O’Connor alleged when he feared a low place on the list as a retirement hint.

The new president, Moira Coatsworth, comes from environmental politics, not small-l labour politics.

Labour is still firmly linked to the union movement but it draws its support and membership from a much wider range of issue-activists and lobbies for the disadvantaged than 30 years ago when hard old men ruled the show. This is what has come to be called “identity” politics, representing people who identify with a cause or a deprivation.

Moreover, the union movement has been changing. There are still some big industrial unions — the engineers and the dairy workers, for example — and they have modernised. But public service workers, nurses and teachers are a far bigger proportion of “organised labour” now.

And service workers are a bigger part of the private workforce. Many are at the bottom of the wage heap and hard to organise. Matt McCarten, Unite founder, was with the Alliance, not Labour, and is now with Hone Harawira.

Kelly, a smart, attractive young woman, is a very different face from the hard old men. Her job is to invent new ways of advocating for workers in today’s fragmented workplaces. She outlined one in her speech.

Kelly is also fighting old battles. She depicted the government’s “narrative” about workplace relations as reflecting century-old notions that employers are benefactors to employees and employees beneficiaries of employers’ beneficence — “a type of charity” — and expected to show deference rather than engage as equals in an “exchange of labour for wages”.

She has some evidence: the government does get irritated with unions when they get uppity: teachers and actors are standout examples. It has done more than it said pre-election to change workplace law in ways unfavourable to unions. It is near-certain to go further in a second term.

The next Labour-led government will reverse much or most of that. But it was notable that Goff, while promising a $15-an-hour minimum wage, did not mention unions in his speech.

His party is essentially middle-class. Professionals with degrees are prominent. Most, though they will usually have “working class” one or two levels back in their ancestry, have not lived at the bottom or even a rung off the bottom. (Goff is an exception.)

It’s not unusual to come across candidates and activists whose parents were National voters. They have made a choice based on political philosophy or “values”.

The result is that many Labour activists empathise with less-well-off voters rather than sharing their gut-feelings.

And that pushes Labour towards high-level policy solutions. Though Goff did have some down-to-earth detail such as a $15 minimum wage, (unspecified) higher tax on the better off and no GST on fresh fruit and vegetables and had some nerve-twangers such as no asset sales, his big promise on Sunday was to reintroduce research and development (R&D) tax credits. It’s blunt and inefficient but if matched with much expanded targeted government R&D assistance, would deliver long-term gain by lifting productivity growth and so wage levels.

By funded the credits by forcing farmers into the emissions trading scheme (ETS) in 2013 instead of 2015 or never under present policy, Goff also played an environmentalist card.

All good stuff for the liberal-left middle class. But neither R&D nor the ETS is likely to set pulses racing in the lower-income suburbs. They are not part of the daily grind there. Likewise Annette King’s reiteration of last year’s conference’s star new policy position, to refocus all social policy on children, especially the very young.

Still, Labour has sharpened the rhetoric in one sense; less was heard of “fairness” at the weekend than “a fair go”.

The “fair go” is probably the closest this country has to a national slogan. It spans left and right, values individual freedoms but also the means, such as education and health care, to ensure the freedoms are real. If Labour can monopolise “fair go”, it might come to be seen as in tune with middle New Zealand.

But Labour must first get through a difficult election. Its mostly closed conference focused on campaigning strategies and methods. Had Labour been on a roll, 300 would have been at Kelly’s speech, even at 9.15am on Sunday, simply because the pool of delegates would have been much bigger. Labour has work to do.