A sniff of victory but a long way to travel yet

How’s this for kitsch: “Warm workers greetings” (cf “warm Pacific greetings”)? That was David Cunliffe’s opener at the Council of Trade Unions conference on October 9. So, more such palaver at the Labour party conference this coming weekend?

Cunliffe’s CTU speech also had much of his trademark declaiming and strumming of policy chords the (not very many) delegates wanted to hear.

But this wasn’t a red dawn, despite Cunliffe’s self-billing as restoring the red to Labour and vice-versa and his reiteration of Labour as rooted in the labour movement.

Cunliffe does mean it when he says Labour will, if elected, reverse many of National’s employment law changes in the first 100 days and there are other significant shifts. But much of the rest is incremental and must fit in a “fiscal framework”. He even appears to be softening David Parker’s Reserve Bank line a bit. He remains at base a free trader despite shuffling on the trans-Pacific partnership.

Cunliffe is more evolution than revolution.

So is the CTU nowadays. President Helen Kelly puts it this way: “What exactly is a union in a modern economy?”

The CTU is doing some things differently. A fee-free Together Union set up in 2011 provides a way for workers scared off joining an official union, or unaware how to unionise, to meet, talk and develop a sense of collective purpose, for example, for workplace safety. There are links with iwi, who supply many non-unionised workers. Leadership training is starting for affiliated unions. A “futures fund” is to fund projects. The CTU is publicising the many it says are in “insecure work”.

This is a long way from the standover, head-kicking tactics of union folklore. Kelly talked in her conference speech of forestry workers who left the official union when years ago it fought a “cold war across the movement, a power struggle” that had little to do with worker welfare.

Kelly is taking the CTU from a defensive stance to being assertive through bottom-up action instead of rooftop shouting.

The Service and Food Workers Union took that route in its living wage campaign. It quietly assembled the backing of more than 100 organisations, a small but growing number of companies, notably the Warehouse, and two re-elected mayors, Len Brown and Celia Wade-Brown.

That idea, which Labour has picked up, is for central and local governments to lead the way, require it of contractors and suppliers and certify companies which comply, giving them potentially a branding point of difference.

That way a policy shift is much more likely to embed to the point where it will not be reversed on the next change of government.

More from Cunliffe of this incrementalism would frustrate some at Labour’s conference this coming weekend. Recall the argy-bargy about too-moderate David Shearer at last year’s conference and the puffing up of Cunliffe, which infuriated many in the MPs caucus and elsewhere in the party when he did not dampen the talk.

That fury has not entirely dissipated. It simmers. But it simmers beneath a lid for now and through to next year’s election.

And it might stay under the lid. For Cunliffe’s CTU speech exhibited a rare energy, not evident since David Lange or Norman Kirk, which gave the room a sniff of victory. That hasn’t been common at Labour and labour gatherings since the mid-2000s.

Will it be there this Saturday when he speaks? Will it carry through into his wider campaigning and his studio and stand-up interviews? Will voters see and hear it and respond?

Those questions can’t be settled yet but there are other small signs that encourage Labour.

One is the Maori party’s shift. Te Ururoa Flavell has sounded far more like an opposition MP than a government-supporting one since 2011 — and is now co-leader. A couple of weeks ago he told Radio New Zealand’s Te Manu Korihi programme that the party plans to meet all other political parties before the next election to make sure it is part of whatever government is formed after it.

That is a departure from Tariana Turia’s intense antipathy to Labour, which she will take with her out of Parliament next year.

Even if the Maori party holds all its three seats (Flavell’s might actually be the only survivor) Labour might well be able to accommodate it on the same basis as it did with Jim Anderton’s two-MP, then one-MP, Progressive party in 2002-08 — competing votes but cooperating in government.

So there is some basis for Labour optimism.

But there are doubts. Much policy has yet to be ironed out. The conference will adopt a high-level “platform” but that leaves detail to be sorted. Not least, Jacinda Ardern’s task — to make children the core of all social and some economic policy, a potential vote-winner if worked up well, drawing in not-for-profits as the living wage campaign has, and presented powerfully — stalled under David Shearer (though there may be now some movement).

Then there is Cunliffe’s yet-to-be-proven consistency and genuineness — and his kitsch-proneness.