Josie Pagani: Workers lose faith in party with glum message

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Josie Pagani. Photo / Supplied
Josie Pagani. Photo / Supplied

A woman in Taumarunui came running after me, clutching the "Vote Labour" leaflet I'd just put in her letter box. "Hey, are you that Josie Pagani?," she asked breathlessly. "I love those Pagani clothes - you got my vote!"

A week before election day, I was taking whatever votes I could get. An elderly woman in Bulls was voting for me because she liked my little dog. Another switched because I rode into her neighbourhood on horseback.

But for all the family pets and fashion labels I could throw at it, most people were not voting Labour - especially in the safe National seat of rural Rangitikei, which stretched from Bolger territory in Taumarunui to the rural flatlands of Tangimoana, a three-hour drive away.

Of course there were those who would never vote Labour, like the gang of elderly farmers who heckled me on the main street of Feilding. "Go on, get out of town, you piece of trash. You don't deserve to drive a Holden." Nice.

But, putting aside those who would never vote Labour, after months of door-knocking and hanging out in RSAs and cosmopolitan clubs I knew why people weren't voting Labour in large enough numbers: they didn't associate us with ideas that would make their life better.

I met a truck driver in Marton. He owned his own truck and worked on contract for different companies. He told me he'd voted Labour all his life and so had his dad, who would turn in his grave if he knew his son wasn't voting Labour in 2011.

He looked troubled. "What am I meant to do? National's there for the rich. Labour's there for the poor. No one is there for people like me."

We lost because people like him weren't voting for us. We were seen as looking backwards, not forwards. We didn't sound aspirational, we sounded miserable. We were turning up on people's doorsteps telling them their lives were gloomy. And anyone who has ever been poor knows the last thing you want is someone telling you your life is crap.

The hardest week to door-knock was when we were telling people - who had just come home from a day's work earning the minimum wage - that it was a great idea to extend their Working for Families tax credit to beneficiaries. "So what's the point of working my guts out all week while someone sitting at home on the dole gets the same tax credit as me?"

There's a reason we're called "Labour": We have always represented people who work. If you work hard you should earn enough to pay the bills, save a bit and enjoy the holidays with your family. If you have a great idea to build a business and work really hard, a Labour government will back you to be world class. It's not just about dividing the economic pie fairly, it's about increasing the size of the pie so everyone can get their piece.

We will always be the political party that is there for working people when the jobs disappear. But our reason for existing has to be that we want to make life better for working people, and they have to believe us.

They won't believe we can change New Zealand until we change the Labour party. That means going back to basics and asking, "What does it mean to support working people today? How do we make New Zealand a global player in 2014?"

The working world has changed. People contract their labour out. They set themselves up as small businesses. They do seasonal and shift work. They work part time or flexible time. They change jobs regularly.

Global markets are changing, and producing food for the world will take more than doubling the number of sheep.

What does it mean to be Labour in this changing world? It means being on the side of the hundreds of thousands of voters who have done well in life because of the equal opportunities that Labour has always stood for - and for the hundreds of thousands more who aspire to join them.

There was one age-old Labour message that always got me in the front door for a cup of tea and chat.

"Labour will create jobs. We've got a plan to do it. Just give us the mandate to get started."

* Josie Pagani was the Labour candidate for Rangitikei in the 2011 election.

- NZ Herald

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