POLITICS : Labour Pains to End?

If you are National and not impatient, things have been going nicely for your party as you go to the 70th anniversary conference this month. Your party is on track to government in 2008.
Of course, nothing in politics is automatic. Labour has plenty of fight left in it and is resourceful. So don’t yet rule out fourth term for Helen Clark. But the signs have been accumulating this year that this is farewell term.
Labour over-promised its way back to power last year with two large bribes, on student loans and Working for Families extension. Together they have severely constrained its fiscal room to manoeuvre this term and next election year.
That wouldn’t be so difficult if the second term’s bonus surpluses on booming domestic economy re-materialised. But this term households have to get their balance sheets back in order after bingeing on the house price bubble.
Even if the economy does as well as the Treasury’s Budget forecast, it will be on the export side – great for some but not generally for households until the trickle trickles down.
Even on less grand forecasts than the Treasury’s that should be enough to start lifting spirits in election year. But for now all polls that measure aspects of the public’s mood show it unmistakably cycling down since it spiked conveniently for Labour just before last election.
The longer the mood stays down in this cycle the more attention – such attention as there is outside of election campaigns – will transfer to the National Party, provided it looks and sounds moderate and competent.
The Government would be helped if it were projecting picture of competence. But each time it has looked to be getting on top of its problems this year someone in its ranks has been caught in media headlights or fallen over: David Benson-Pope, Parker and Cunliffe – the last two the new white hopes of the Cabinet – and then in June Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen himself saying journalists were driven by venality in their reporting of the Budget.
It has been getting harder all year to avoid the conclusion that the Government is now in decay similar to the decay which set in in National’s early 1980s’ and late 1990s’ third terms.
But is National doing enough to deserve the prize? It is too early to say but it is on the right track.
Essentially National has to do four things:
• It has to be centre-right, with the accent on “centre”. It must be moderate and non-threatening. The bulk of its caucus is now of that ilk and over time that line will predominate – in fact, the signs are already there.
• It has to rebuild the platform on which its policies are based to stop looking opportunistic. Only few people bother much about policy detail, so rebuilding strong base for policy is mostly about developing an ethos which drives how MPs behave and, as consequence, how the party is perceived. Without the base, MPs are too tempted to grab at low-hanging political fruit, as in 2005, and thus project fuzzy image when it counts. Bill English, who is overseeing policy development, has got MPs and some outsiders working on platform building. We have yet to see how well that is being done but that it is being done at all is huge step forward from National’s first two opposition terms.
• It has to project that moderacy and that solid policy base. Don Brash is not moderate, which poses difficulty even if he spouts moderate messages. So there is an unresolved leadership issue.
• Which leads to the fourth thing National must do: project united party to the public. Until leadership stops periodically surfacing in the media – either because Brash is unequivocally endorsed as 2008 election campaign leader or is replaced – National will not project convincing government-in-waiting.
Behind the scenes, unity is being assembled. For the moment that project blocks leadership change. But in due course, if leadership becomes stumbling block and change must be made, it is as result likely to be more solidly based than the past three leadership coups.
Put all that together and – provided National can also assemble support partners (yet to be demonstrated) – you have party en route to government-in-waiting status in 2008. Not bad prospect to take to the anniversary conference.

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
[email protected]

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