Labour’s big question: yes or no, for or against?

Ushers at Labour’s weekend conference wore fluorescent yellow jackets. The subliminal message: roadworks in progress.

The roadworks already done were evident in a much tidier, more stable and cheerier, even enthusiastic, atmosphere than for years. When the works are finished, will it be a road to power?

Labour says it is now settled between it and the Greens that they will campaign as a visible alternative government in 2017, unlike in 2011 and 2014.

Labour also says much spadework has been done with Winston Peters and in discussions and cooperation between Labour and New Zealand First spokespeople to position Labour well in any post-2017-election auction. Andrew Little accords Peters respect. And Green co-leader James Shaw is less unacceptable to Peters than Russel Norman.

But Labour needs to lift itself above 35% to show voters a credible lead party in government.

To do that it needs to be more representative. At the weekend it was thick with white and grey hair and thin on youth. It was thin on Asian ethnics — at a time when “superdiversity”, the subject of a searching report by lawyer Mai Chen, is an emerging in-word.

Was that because Palmerston North is hard to get to? Would the mix have been different in Auckland?

The party claimed 520 registered delegates, competitive with National. On the floor there were 350 on a generous count.

Next question: is Labour a “yes” party or a “no” party? Is it tapping into and contributing to what people want the country and their own lives to be or is it just against a lot of what National has done and let happen?

A “no” party can win an election. But winning that way is not a sound basis for three terms in government. That would especially be so in 2017 if three parties were needed and support parties’ votes then eroded as usual. And note Peters’ age.

A “yes” party has a stronger basis to solidify support in its early years in government. Labour did that in 1935-38 and, arguably, in 1999-2002 when Clark embedded her “third way” softening of the 1980s-90s deregulation.

Key’s “one-of-us-ness” made National a “yes” party with everyday folk, even though they rejected some policies, such as asset sales.

Labour, with no Key at hand (though Little does have presence), has to do it more through policy and rhetoric.

At the conference, as in its daily press releases, Labour was more against than for.

Little twice said a loud “no” to the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s apparent block on new law restricting land sales to foreigners — at the Friday opening pounding the podium to add emphasis and in his Sunday keynote sweeping a glass to the floor.

He reiterated his 2014 “noes” to a broad capital gains tax, state power takeover and pension age rise. Also out: the variable compulsory work-based saving rate.

There were many other “noes” at the conference, particularly about houses, health services, jobs and wages.

“Noes” trade on voter angers. “Yesses” build on and extend voter aspirations.

There were some policy initiatives.

Little promised government purchases would favour local producers of things from railway wagons to computers.

Phil Twyford promised to free up housing density and height controls, reform urban boundary rules and fund infrastructure for new developments with special bonds.

Too few and too expensive houses were one conference theme. Sagging regional economies were another.

Both chimed in with conference addresses by Shamubeel Eaqub, the economist who coined “generation rent” and “zombie towns” to describe the majority now locked out of home owning and the demographic divide between big cities and elsewhere.

But are those policies aspirational or reactive? Do they make Labour a “yes” party?

Little in his keynote did talk of aspirations. They were, he said, simple: “owning a home, having security for the people we love, a chance to enjoy the outdoors and the environment we love and a job that gives us the time and the money to lead a fulfilling life”. In short, “everyone should have the same opportunities to make the most of this life”.

Grant Robertson thrice phrased that as a “fair go”, once a core New Zealand value.

Robertson does not mean by that resurrecting a halcyon past. He is ahead of the government in his exploration of what a fair go might mean in the 2020s.

Drawing on, among others, the British author of “The End of Capitalism”, Paul Mason, he outlined to delegates a very different social and economic environment that will change how income is earned and required deep changes in education and training.

That’s all part of Labour’s roadworks. How well the work is done will decide whether a signpost toward government can be put up at next year’s conference.

* Correction: Last week’s column, drawing on regional and other sources, called Steven Joyce’s conversion to the Opotiki aquaculture scheme sudden. Joyce says he had it in under consideration from last year. And work on the action plan started in 2014, not after the Northland by-election.