Politics

The Future of Work, and of Labour

The former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, Tim Murphy, reports from day one of Labour’s party-critical Future of Work conference.

“They’re stuffed,” a journalistic acquaintance said when told I was going to cover the Labour Party’s Future of Work conference. He is not unsympathetic to progressive causes and is temperamentally attuned to helping the weak, and sharing the wealth.  So his reaction was surprising.

Shaking his head, he couldn’t see a way forward for a party in the position in public polls that Labour finds itself seven-and-a-half years into opposition. “They should change that name, too,” he said before hurrying off to juggle his tasks in this new world of work.

Labour.  The word does have a certain passé feel to it. Has society moved on and left Labour behind?

This conference could well have been named the Future of Labour. The party.

For it is here that the descendants of Savage and Fraser are looking deep into their reason for being and trying to work out work, workers and what working will mean as technological displacement (robots, artificial intelligence, mechanisation) and globalisation eliminate jobs.

The Future of Work commission and the two day conference are billed as open-source policy development, a kind of political whiteboard session for the party to “listen and get it right” in the words of leader Andrew Little.

The MC for the 250-strong crowd at AUT is Auckland Central MP Jacinda Ardern. “I’m proud that the Labour Party have taken on what could be the daunting reality of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” she says.

And she should be. It is too rare for oppositions to come up with entirely new approaches to major policy challenges. Before 2008, the National opposition seemed happy to throw previously unpopular policies overboard and to coat-tail into power by adopting successful Clark government measures.

While the future of work does go to the heart of Labour’s purpose, that is the very reason it should be the political force trying to find a new way to support those now facing change.

Labour Party Leader Andrew Little during the announcement of Labour's new tertiary education policy in February (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Labour Party Leader Andrew Little during the announcement of Labour’s new tertiary education policy in February (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Little sees no conflict in the party that brought the welfare state to New Zealand now considering new structures such as a universal minimum income.  “It is about a sense of security for people. We have a different set of circumstances now.”

He tells the conference he’s happy 14 or 15 Labour MPs are attending. “Nearly half the Labour caucus proves this is core business to the NZ Labour Party.”

His goal in re-setting policies to meet changes in employment is sloganish in that kind of George W Bush “No Child Left Behind” way, but it is simple: “No one must be left out and no one must be left behind.”

Grant Robertson, the finance spokesman, has led the project. He speaks after Little, remembering at the start to offer a tribute to those killed overnight in the Brussels terror raids and then opening by claiming the current changes to society are happening at a rate 10 times that of the industrial revolution.

He’s more anecdotal, wondering why anyone’s excited about the Domino’s Pizza plan to deliver here using a robot. “That’s all well and good. But the last thing we should be is the passive recipient of technology.” A Labour-led pizza market would develop its robots here, apparently.

And Robertson can do high-minded. On the risks of communities being left out as up to half our current jobs face elimination, he recalls: “Democracy fails when citizens think prosperity is out of their reach.”

He runs through the “10 Big Ideas” Labour has distilled from the months of consultation on the future of work. They’re hard to argue with.  But they’re deliberately that way, because they are still topics for debate, not policies or even specific intents.

But the idea of universal basic income which has made news this week, and strengthening the rights to collective bargaining stand out in the section on Greater Income Security.

A guy, standing (photo credit: Tim Murphy)

A guy, standing (photo credit: Tim Murphy)

If the unionists in the audience are happy with that last proposal, they’re in for some sharp words from a keynote speaker, Professor Guy Standing of the University of London. A raspy-voiced Cambridge and Illinois University trained economist, Standing says in his talks around the world to members of the Precariat – those at risk of the upheavals in society and work – if he mentions labour unions, people start heading out to the bar.

“If you talk about the means of production, people will be rushing out too.”

Standing wants this conference to “define what’s possible – to the point that it becomes inevitable”.  He relates a conversation he had with Noam Chomsky when they were anticipating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, last year. “It was the first class-based set of demands made in history”.  

How might a Precariat Charter in 2016 differ from a Proletariat Charter in 2015?  “You need to have a strong drink or good sex or whatever turns you on before taking that up….” he says.

And Standing isn’t standing King Canute style trying to preserve work that is passing into history. He says Labour parties need to design a new income distribution system  for the 21st century. “We need to think outside the box,” he adds, listing new ways of redistributing education, quality space, regulating flexible labour, a principled migration policy, and “sharing a social dividend from our forebears.”

The former Clinton-era US Labour Secretary, Robert Reich, a tiny man with a huge mind and an urgency for reform, is the other big name speaker. He asks if we still have gas station attendants “here in Australia” and tells a joke about knowing you are out of the cabinet when you sit in the back seat of your car and there’s no one sitting in the front seat to drive you. Unfortunately, someone in the crowd who heard him speak the last time he was in New Zealand, in 1997, reminds him he used that line then too.

Reich is a Bernie Sanders-supporting ex-Clinton administration staffer. He finds the change in political discourse between the eras fascinating: Bill Clinton would never have opened his campaign, as his wife has, attacking the powerful forces of Wall St.

He sees a future of more people working in lower-paid service sector jobs – and an inevitability of a guaranteed minimum income to supplement all adults. “Instead of talking about governments, let’s talk about a democracy. How can a democracy respond at the speed technology is changing? The answer is it can’t.

“We need people to be sufficiently educated about the tech, about how to use it and about regulation. Regulation is not a bad word. Technology that gets out of control can subject all of us to some terrible problems.”

Little and Robertson are not so keen talking about the universal basic income, emphasising  it is a thought-starter only, and would be a fair way off if it occurred. At a press stand-up with Reich, Little swipes John Key for criticising it out of hand. “He’s not capable of dealing with a big idea. He’s never had one of his own.”

Key aside, it is a pretty cheery Labour group, happy to be showing the initiative. It has been a day of big name endorsement and a hurry up or two from Reich (warning politicians to be careful to separate immigration from ethnicity!) and Standing (telling ‘Labour Parties’ to look in the mirror over their support for neoliberal policies.)

But Little had promised that Labour wanted to be challenged. And would listen.

These keepers of the Labour flame are open-sourcing and open to change. Perhaps that name Labour could be on the table. There are options. An expert on transforming teams, Nina Sochon, spoke late in the day and ran through the alternative words we now use to describe work:  Flexi, Tele, Smart, Remote.  

The Flexi Party: Welcome to the future.

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