HOW STRANGE IT SEEMS, looking back at the Labour Party of 1987. A Labour government had just been re-elected – something that hadn’t happened since 1946. So, you could be forgiven for thinking that any party conference held in the wake of such an historic victory would sound a decidedly celebratory tone. In 1987, however, you’d be wrong.
The Labour Conference held in Auckland’s Kingsgate Centre in November 1987 was one of the most bitter in the party’s history. Roger Douglas and his fellow “Rogernomes” arrived at the conference expecting to be greeted like heroes. Instead, they were hissed and booed. By 1987 a majority of Labour activists struggled to see their MPs as members of the same movement. A significant minority felt like passengers on a hi-jacked airliner. They were convinced that the plane’s cockpit was full of free-market terrorists.
I remember the event vividly. Not only was it the conference where I was elected to Labour’s ruling council, but it was also the gathering to which I gave what many delegates later assured me was my best (and most quoted) speech.
I followed the much-loved Labour stalwart Ida Gaskin from New Plymouth. Ida’s exploits in the labour movement stretched all the way back to 1937 when she’d farewelled her sweetheart as he set sail to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. She’d concluded her speech to the special conference session on social policy by quoting the famous Maori proverb: “What is the most important thing? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people.”
This, according to my notes, is what I said next to the 800 delegates:
“This is a debate about social policy. It is a curious thing to set aside time for at a Labour Party conference. What is our party about – if not social policy?
“When I cast my mind back to my own childhood, I recall images of a state that cared for its people. I grew up in a small village in North Otago. Each morning a state-funded bus would pick me up at the farm gate and carry me to school. What do I remember of that school? State-provided school milk, yes, and school journals. Do you remember your school journals? Filled with stories by New Zealanders about New Zealanders. I learned to be proud of my country, proud of my village – with its tiny post office and its community hall. The future beckoned me forward then, and I was eager to follow.
“What is the vision we present to the children of today? What are the images that they will recall when they reach adulthood?
“Will they recall images of a caring state? Or will they conjure up visions of heartless cities and mirror-glass towers; a jungle where only the strong survive and the weak are trampled on?
“We must decide what sort of world we wish our children to inherit. We must build a future that beckons – not a future that threatens.
“Delegates, the caring world of my childhood was made possible by a single commitment. A social and economic policy that underpinned everything else I have described to you today. That policy was Full Employment.
“Ida Gaskin was right to quote the Maori proverb: ‘What is the most important thing? People. People. People.’
“And what do those people need delegates? Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.”
It is deeply depressing to read those words after the passage of nearly 30 years. I read the description of the future I warned my fellow party members against, and I think of the world in which my daughter has been raised, and I am reminded – and profoundly ashamed – of the scale of my own, and the Left’s, failure.
We may have booed and hissed Roger Douglas and his colleagues, and voted his worst enemies on to the NZ Council of the party, but, 30 years later, it is Douglas and the neoliberal Right that are laughing last and loudest.
And the priorities suggested to Labour back in 1987 remain to be fulfilled. A future that beckons, not a future that threatens, can only be constructed upon the bedrock of full employment.
So, I hope you will forgive me for revealing that I felt a shiver of recognition run up my spine when I read the following words in Andrew Little’s State of the Nation speech – delivered today to an Auckland audience of small business owners and entrepreneurs:
“Labour’s vision is that New Zealand will once again have the lowest unemployment in the developed world.
“When people have jobs, they have dignity, they have self-respect, and their families have the best future.”
I also found myself nodding emphatically at these sentences:
“The social inequality we suffer today, built up over the last 30 years or so, must be the driving force for the change we need to make.
“It’s a vicious circle. More inequality, slower growth, more inequality.”
To make sure that his audience was left in no doubt as to his priorities, Andrew concluded his State of the Nation address with these words:
“Labour stands for a better way. We stand for a wealthier, fairer New Zealand. We stand for real solutions to the big challenges that lie ahead. We stand for the future. And above all, We stand for jobs.”
Okay, so it lacks the rhetorical extravagance of my 1987 speech but, frankly, I don’t care. Andrew Little may lack the oratorical skills of Norman Kirk but his political instincts are no less sound and his economic vision no less radical. The welfare state was founded on the understanding that it could only be funded by a nation at work. And that a nation at work was, in itself, the very best guarantee of its citizens’ welfare. Everything else that Labour members and voters believe in: public health and education; state housing; fairness in the workplace; are, ultimately, only deliverable out of the fiscal resources generated by full employment.
In other words, Andrew Little gets it.
What is the most important thing? People. People. People.
And what do those people need?
Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.