Little and Labour have much work to do

Andrew Little could do some work on his dance steps. He has been tripping.

He parlayed himself into outright opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership when he could have stuck to asserting a right, regardless, to tighten land sales.

He may thereby have won Labour some notice among those fearful of TPP. But that was offset by disunity when Phil Goff, Trade Minister when TPP was mooted, broke ranks (with former leader David Shearer).

Then last week Little allowed himself to be led (1) from condemning banks for not matching the Reserve Bank cuts with home mortgage cuts to mooting laws to force them and (2) from worrying about Chinese chefs to linking it to turning the tap down on immigration.

So National hooted that he would force banks to raise mortgages when the Reserve Bank raised its rate and that ethnic restaurants would have to close.

Earlier, with his comments on the astro-priced keytruda melanoma drug, Little let himself appear to contemplate politicians deciding which drugs Pharmac should fund. (Tony Ryall in 2008 wrongly required Pharmac to buy herceptin for breast cancer.)

These examples of Little’s political and media inexperience chip at his WYSIWYG — “what you see is what you get” — strong point. At his strongest Little is a straight-talking bloke. That could appeal to some of the wage-work voters Labour has lost over the past 30 years.

Key, similarly short on politics before becoming leader, made mistakes. But he offset them with an engaging affability Little can’t fake.

Little’s mistakes risk loosening the unity that has developed around him as leader.

So Little has work to do. So has his party.

After its 2002 disaster National did a root-and-branch rethink and made major changes to its structure and operations. Labour responded to its 2014 disaster with a new president and secretary but not major new structure and operations.

The Monday after that election Grant Robertson said Labour had to be “part of the communities we live in” — thereby in effect saying it wasn’t.

Robertson and some other MPs, notably Annette King and Stuart Nash, have built that sort of connection in their electorates. And Labour has picked up membership among students this year.

But in most of the country, and especially in provincial cities, Labour is sparse or invisible. Contrast National’s 30,000-odd broadly spread message-carrying members.

Labour thus doesn’t have enough carriers of its message in pubs and clubs. It looks like a party of elites. (So does Labour’s indispensable 2017 running mate, the Green party.)

That compromises Little’s pitch to “against-the-elites” voters –- those against big corporations in the TPP or against the banks, etc. “Against-the-elites” is a big part of Bernie Sanders appeal in the United States. Sanders talks of “revolution”.

Go back to Robertson. Can he this week start developing a basis for convincing people Labour will develop policies they might want to vote for — policies pointing to a more equitable future in a rapidly and deeply changing work and social environment?

Robertson’s “future of work” conference on Wednesday and Thursday features American employment guru Robert Reich, British “precariat” inventor Guy Standing and Australian expert on young people’s work experiences Jan Owen.

Robertson has the right question. As in the industrial revolution, but at a many times faster rate, new technology is changing patterns, practices and expectations of “work”, what its rewards are, how it can be measured (GDP misses too much) and how secure people can make themselves. And he recognises that young voters have very different perceptions of what “work” is, isn’t and can be.

Reich’s opening keynote is on “saving capitalism, for the many, not the few”, the title of his new book. The implication, relevant to the conference’s several capitalist sponsors, notably the Hawkins Group, is that capitalism will not be saved unless it works for the many. (Capitalists might help their cause by condemning bad behaviour, viz Steel and Tube’s misleading certifications.)

Standing will talk of the “precarious” (hence “precariat”, from proletariat) livelihoods now and in prospect as technology changes work.

Conference themes include where technology is headed, regional development, productivity, unions’ role and the future for voluntary and unpaid work — plus how to generate wealth “from the ground up”, to use Robertson’s words.

Robertson mate Jacinda Ardern is to point the way forward from the conference.

That way forward which Labour must now start charting is, as Robertson sees it, one that attracts votes by promising “security” (health, housing and education besides work) and taps into aspiration. That might give “against-ists” something to be for.

And, of course, success will also depend on matters like organisation, membership and not tripping. Eighteen months out from the next election, Labour is stuck on 30% poll average. It has much work to do and limited time left.