Labour meets, needing to chart a forward path

This is not a great time to be a social democratic party in most rich liberal democracies. Can Labour start to climb out of that fug at its conference this weekend?

Look around. If old-Democrat-elitist Hillary Clinton wins the United States presidency next week, she will do so only because Donald Trump turns off more than she does. Large numbers see Democrats, once the party of social security, as complicit in their 2010s insecurity.

Britain’s Labour party is torn between mourners of a pre-1980s golden age and celebrants of a passé third-way technocracy.

Across Europe the established left is being disestablished. French President Francois Hollande has very low approval ratings. Spain’s Socialists are behind upstart left party Podemos and deeply split over a decision to prop up a conservative regime. In Iceland a toddler Pirates party has surged.

Australia’s Liberal-National Coalition’s plummet in July owed more to minor parties and independents than to desire for Labor, which went heavily negative and tactical.

The need for ailing social democrats like Andrew Little’s Labour is to be convincing pathfinders to a secure future.

For much of the twentieth century the mixed-economy paradigm did that. But the evolving 2010s and 2020s realities demand a new paradigm which reflects foundational social democratic principles but also relates practically to those new realities.

Then policies geared to the paradigm have to make personal sense to middling voters.

That is a totteringly tall order. Throwbacks to the 1970s and adapting Helen Clark’s 2000s third way won’t get Labour there — not least because National has reacted to the likes of a wild house market and embedded inequalities with a from-the-right third-way-ism as the market-liberal paradigm has frayed.

Grant Robertson’s “future of work commission” has been hunting that new paradigm for two years. It has canvassed a wide range of New Zealanders, drawn on international thinking (and brought some of the thinkers to two conferences) and held numerous meetings.

He will on Saturday present a 70-page report with 64 recommendations.

The analysis competently distils much of the new liberal-left (and some “worried right”) international thinking, related to local circumstance. It tracks the impact on middle-income people’s jobs and incomes of technology and globalisation — including globalisation of people, which takes the form here of record immigration and swathes of cheap temporary and holiday workers.

Does the report present a new paradigm? No. There isn’t one on the global intellectual shelf — though Amartya Sen’s “wellbeing economics” model, which even the Treasury has noted, might be a starting signpost for social democrats.

The report’s recommendations mix generalisations and practical initiatives — more a response to issues than a long-sighted forward path.

The report’s key word is “secure”. Just as Phil Twyford’s “housing first” package aims at secure tenure in good houses, Iain Lees-Galloway’s work package aims at security (and higher incomes) through lifetimes of many changes of job.

Lees-Galloway wants workplace laws revised, with strong policing, to facilitate collective wage and conditions agreements covering all workers in the industries and new activities of the 2010s. He wants immigration changes, including limits.

That could be taken as defensive or constrictive. But the report tries to avoid negativity. It talks up opportunity: “dignity”, “fulfilment”, “choices”, “doing good”, “new models”, “supporting self-employment”, “investment” and getting away from a “deficit model”.

For example, climate change spokesperson Megan Woods sits on the party’s jobs and growth committee, not its environment committee. She wants a “just transition” to the low-carbon economy not, as one West Coast miner put it to her, expletive undeleted, to making coffee. Example: new industries built around geothermal electricity.

The Greens, who have met Robertson’s group a number of times, broadly agree with Lees-Galloway’s and Woods’ lines (and Twyford’s).

That sets the basis for a coalition which can also accommodate differences (as do National and the polls-apart Maori party). Moreover, Green co-leader James Shaw has been invited to Labour’s conference to reciprocate Little’s attendance at the Greens’ one in June.

But coalescing does not of itself chart a path to power. Labour+Greens face two obstacles.

One is that social strain is not as strong here as in other rich democracies and is diverted by Key’s easygoing blandness or into Winston Peters’ box. Less strain means there is no new movement to Labour’s left but also less for Labour to lever off.

The second is to get Labour+Greens recognised by middling voters as the pathfinder to a secure, positive future. Robertson and Little have to get their “work” ideas out into the light and get voters to see, hear and then relate them to their daily fears and hopes.

That is Labour’s uphill task this weekend.