Labour's test: will its values fit the 2020s?

The unemployment rate lifted again in September, on one measure, to 7.3 per cent — just in time to lift Labour hopes at the party’s conference this coming weekend. Actually, it is not so simple.

First, the participation rate — those at work or looking for work — stayed high. People are not (yet) giving up in despair. (Emigrants to Australia are another story).

Australia’s participation rate is lower: people are giving up. On a participation rate the same as here, Australia’s unemployment rate would not be as far below ours as appears at first glance.

Also, the household labour force survey (HLFS) from which the September quarter figure came is volatile and might have overstated the rate. Note that the HLFS recorded a 0.8 per cent fall in hours worked in the quarter while the quarterly employment survey (QES) recorded only a 0.3 per cent fall and its underlying trend measure is still up.

The QES is also a better match for electronic card transactions: though core retail sales were down through the September quarter, total sales, which include fuel and vehicles (both up), were up.

Next, note that high and persistent unemployment in the United States did not tip out the incumbent President. Exit polls gave a clear majority to Barack Obama of those rating unemployment the top issue.

Now add in persistent headlines of global gloom, which will have got through to most of the populace here, including those who take little interest in politics and issues. John Key, Bill English and Steven Joyce can plausibly say our recent economic slowing is imported. They can’t fix the United States, Europe, China and Japan.

The point for Labour delegates gathering on Friday for a fuller-than-usual agenda proposing big organisational changes is that economic woe is not enough — at least not yet — to tip out Key-English-Joyce.

To lift its chances of a win in 2014 Labour needs to build a case that a government it led then would bring in transformative policies, on the strength of which employment and incomes would ride better through global ups and downs than under the Key-English-Joyce formula.

Conference delegates might note what one conservative American commentator said last week of the Republicans, who not only did not unseat Obama but failed in Senate seats they should have won and overall did not build on the momentum of 2010.

That commentator’s advice was to “become a national party again by offering new ideas rooted in old ones”.

Labour does not have the Republicans’ demographic challenge: they pitched to a white America when the proportions of blacks and Latinos are rapidly rising. With roots among Maori and Polynesians, Labour is positioned to score from demographic change over the next 10 years or so. (Beyond that our more Asian future may tell a different story.)

Labour’s challenge is that the “working class” on which it was based a century ago has eroded as manufacturing has automated and as services have come to dominate the economy. Labour needs “new ideas rooted in old ones”: policies for the 2020s, reworked from its founding principles.

So, bigger than the delegates’ litmus test for David Shearer — if he doesn’t hit it off with them, MPs will get edgy — is a move to adopt a 50-page base “policy platform” that would be binding on all party members, including MPs.

The draft platform states Labour’s “values”, which it claims as New Zealand values — a version of “old ideas” it might “root new ideas” in.

The overarching values are freedom (“to achieve our individual and collective potential”), equality of opportunity, solidarity (mutual rights and obligations), intergenerational guardianship and the Treaty of Waitangi.

Among individual policy area themes: “the growing gap between the poor and rich”, as an economic, not just a social issue (though it doesn’t assert it is a factor in performance); “Labour is a party of action” in managing the economy; environmental sustainability (“without a healthy environment we cannot have a healthy economy or a healthy society”, not a preoccupation in 1916); “real social security, fairness and realising potential”, balanced with “responsibility”; “stable, predictable family and care environments” for early childhood; “public education”; “access to good health care” for “all of life”, with a focus on long-term outcomes; “strong public services”; and “local democracy”.

The platform is work in progress and a section on initiatives will be filled in next year. Its importance now is that it amounts to an attempt by the wider party to reclaim a place in policymaking after being largely shut out in the Clark years.

The test is whether voters click. Too many in middle and less-well-off New Zealand didn’t connect in the 2008 and 2011 elections. The new ideas will have to be not just rooted in old ideas but relevant and presented by a relevant leader. Skimming in on a soggy economy would not set up a long spell in office.

This weekend might be a start. Or a stall.