Can Labour get bums on pews in its "broad church"?

Square these two facts from the Labour’s conference.

1. The conference voted on Sunday to construct its list to ensure at least 50 per cent of those elected in 2017 are women.

2. The landslide-winning new Christchurch mayor and former senior Labour cabinet minister Lianne Dalziel, officiating at the opening, was in the second row behind four men on the Labour side at the Ngai Tahu welcome on Friday evening.

Is this modern Labour? Is this modern Ngai Tahu?

Dalziel wasn’t a dignitary on a courtesy visit. She was a star, given a standing ovation, there to issue the civic welcome and thus David Cunliffe’s near equal on the platform.

Ngai Tahu is an integral and respected actor in the city’s rebuild, property and commerce. It was, after all, there long before the first four ships delivered the families who puffed themselves up into sniffy icons.

That attests to Sir Tipene O’Regan’s skilful navigation of the tribe to the point where it had the “luxury” of living and expressing its culture and his hard-nosed focus on managing money along with mana.

Ngai Tahu has managed its money in a modern way. Mayor Dalziel’s relegation asks whether it can now modernise its expression of its mana.

Biculturalism is normal. Ngai Tahu has high standing in the city. Does it now have a responsibility to migrate its culture from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century?

And for Labour: can women mayors be dumped in the second row and Aotearoa/New Zealand be a modern state and society?

So is Labour modern? Its caucus before Dalziel’s resignation was 41 per cent women. A woman was chosen — in part, because a woman — to contest the Christchurch East by-election. This has a quaint 1970s-80s feel.

Labour believers counter that “equality” has proved elusive. Ask women in a law firm, for example. Ask why women-dominated occupations have lower wages than men-dominated ones. The necessary remedy, Labour believers say, is to mandate change.

This forcing from the top was Labour’s classic method. But in its migration to “active, hands-on government” over the past three years the party has been increasingly careful to add “in partnership with” business, not-for-profits and local councils: collaboration, not top-down mandate.

This is, at least in the rhetoric, a different sort of “left” from the autocratic 1930s-70s. There is now supposed to be an element of citizens participation in the “democratic socialism” the party insists (including this past weekend) is its core value.

For this to work, the party has to be seen as a genuine partner. And to be seen as that it needs not only to recover its part of the “missing million” who did not vote in 2011 but to be representative of a wide swathe of society.

President Moira Coatsworth justified the women quota as making the Labour caucus “representative” in the sense that women make up 51 per cent of society. To her comment add Labourites’ fondness for calling their party a “broad church”.

But do outsiders see a broad church? Would a near-half of society feel comfortable sitting in its pews and would a substantial number of others think it a church not too unlike the one in the pews of which they do feel comfortable? Is Labour representative in that wider sense?

Not so, if you listened to some segments of the party and some debates at the conference. Economic nationalists constitute a significant minority, deeply suspicious of markets and of the impact of globalisation on the capacity to exercise full sovereignty to enact Labour policy.

That minority wanted the conference to take a tough line on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade (and intellectual property and investment and government procurement and much-else-behind-the-border) deal. Phil Goff came armed with the answers to 60 written parliamentary questions which, if translated into the actual agreement (a big if), would meet nearly all the detailed objections. Only on intellectual property was the answer murky.

On TPP and a number of similar old-left pushes, including on superannuation, the leadership won flexibility. In TPP’s case that was partly by emphasising the large number of dairy and other jobs access to the Japanese and United States markets would generate. Part of the leadership’s problem is that Tim Groser has not emulated Goff’s constant referral to a group of “stakeholders” (including Groser) when negotiating the China free trade agreement. On TPP Groser has left near-everyone, including free-traders, in the dark. That has stoked fears and angers.

National’s gambit is to paint Labour’s wariness of TPP as old-left — along with its state housing programme, electricity purchasing and insurance company.

Labour’s challenge is to make its programme look middling-friendly new-left, that is, to get enough middling voters thinking it is “representative”, not thinking it is fighting old or irrelevant battles in old ways. A women quota doesn’t help.

Simply put, is Labour modern? Cunliffe has yet to prove that.