POLITICS A Long Run Thing

Go back 15 years. The Labour party was within year of its second election in power. Five years later it was running third, sometimes even lagging behind party led by its self-exiled president, Jim Anderton.
Party conferences then were small and scratchy gatherings of the pathologically loyal. Some MPs, including one who is now senior minister, contemplated life as small, pure party slightly to the left of the centre, akin to Italy’s Socialist party.
Now fast forward to this month’s party conference. The game is set to cement Labour as the default governing party, commanding enough of the centre to lock out the old political rival, National.
But note three conference markers on the way to this point.
In 1995 Labour chose Michael Hirschfeld, millionaire liberal, as its president in preference to candidate from the soft left which had dominated the organisation since the mid-1980s. At the same conference Helen Clark made her speech credo of her political project and thus re-positioned the parliamentary leadership nearer the organisation’s centrist stance.
It also softened the disjunction between Labour and the Alliance, weakening the Alliance as competitor for Labour-side votes, which culminated in the Alliance’s disappearance in 2002. (Is this re-run of what is going on between National and ACT right now.)
The 1997 conference was marked by an influx of new, younger, more “modern” people, attuned to social democracy in economically globalised world. fresh breeze blew through the greying ranks of 1970s’ soft-liberals.
The 2001 conference – in Auckland as it is this month – was dedicated to staying in power. Debate was muted – particularly on four weeks’ holiday, which was shelved. Even an attempt to get US involvement in Afghanistan on the agenda was shut down.The question hanging over this month’s conference is whether Labour can make the next shift: to party that governs long-term.
That is Clark’s big game. Operationally, it challenges National on its core territory. And National is off-guard.
Go back to 1989, sit in National party conference and imagine day when the MPs would be so dispirited they would elect as leader man who had been in Parliament only 16 months. It is unimagin-able to old timers of party that in the 1950s made itself the party that governed long-term.
In the year since Don Brash took over as party leader, he has rescued National from despair, hugely lifted membership, money and morale. But he is political novice and in hurry, even suggesting that he is unlikely to stay leader if he isn’t Prime Minister after the next election. No leader whose overriding aim was to re-establish National as the party of long-run government would think that, let alone say it.His strategists, therefore, have problem.
Brash is actually off-centre. Ideologically he is an ACT man. That is not the place from which to run long-term government. Long-run governments hug the centre. If they lead, they make sure they are not too far ahead of public understanding. Steady-as-she-goes was the rule in the 1960s, National’s golden decade.
Clark also came to her leadership from off-centre. In 1999 that didn’t matter because the electorate, by and large, felt the 1990s had been off-centre, so modest correction – and she used that financial markets term – was merely return to the centre.
But in her second term Clark overshot, on moral reform (prostitution, civil unions) and in deference to Maori. Since the brutal wake-up call administered by Brash’s Orewa speech, the one-time farm girl Clark has been pulling back towards the centre.
The Civil Union Bill is high tide, at least until public opinion shifts, and that is unlikely for some years. In fact, if debate on the final stages of the bill looks likely to take too much of toll in opinion polls, the bill might just quietly disappear.
And Treaty of Waitangi concessions are also testing the tolerance of the electorate. The manoeuvring over the foreshore and seabed is the measure of that.
Those are over by Christmas. Watch then for dose of conservative management through to the election and perhaps little modest reform in third term.
But can Clark hold her loyalists? Being long-run government requires massive mental shift from Labour activists who are agenda-pushers of one sort or another. Compromise, even for long-run governments, is not their instinct.
This month’s conference will provide clue. It will be dedicated to staying in power, as in 2001. But that is no longer enough for Clark.

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

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