Deep down, the political contest now under way is to find, define and occupy the new centre

Three years ago senior National ministers were gloating that their alliance with Winston Peters had blocked Labour off from the centre. But actually Mr Peters’ betrayal of his supporters’ expectations – that he would eject National and its economic programme, not prop both up – had opened up space in the centre for Labour.

In any case, Mr Peters is a populist, not a centrist. While his brand of populism has included centrist elements, populism is destabilising, not stabilising, and thus the antithesis of centrist politics. When his party disintegrated, Labour was able to look plausibly centrist even while inching leftwards in policy and striking a deal with Jim Anderton.

Moreover, alliance with Mr Peters propelled National away from the centre. When Jenny Shipley came to office in late 1997 it was on a party mandate to reassert the National “blue” over the coalition “grey”, to use then party president Geoff Thompson’s infelicitous phrase.

Max Bradford, Bill English and Simon Upton in very different ways tentatively tried last year to conjure a centrist dimension but by then Mrs Shipley, who, given her background, might in different times might have been centrist, had irretrievably marginalised herself and her government with radical pursuits in 1998.

The last throw of the National-ACT dice was a populist manoeuvre by ACT over the Treaty of Waitangi, crime and welfare. That failed because the ex-Peters angries to whom it was most likely to appeal didn’t like what came with it. Negative campaigning by National on unions and tax just reaffirmed Mrs Shipley’s centrifugal reputation.

So Helen Clark has an open space in which to construct a new centre around Labour policies and her conservative, cautious management style.

Ms Clark will look leftish, even radical, in the first six to 12 months as she rams through her tax increase, labour law reform and accident compensation renationalisation, reverses some 1990s social policy reforms and maybe liberalises some social laws. But after that repositioning she is likely to move cautiously, conservatively and within budget.

That style – the antithesis of the radicalism the electorate has come to hate and fear — plus a couple of good economic years and a slightly warmer welfare state, might be enough to create a patina of stability on which to begin constructing a new centre.

Ms Clark faces four challenges in this enterprise.

The first is policy. Nineteen-seventies social policy assumptions won’t do. The economic and political scope to expand the welfare state is much more constrained than in 1970 when Ms Clark was learning her politics at Auckland University: social spending alone takes up a quarter of the economy, roughly what the whole of government spending was taking 30 years ago.

Nor will “a watered-down version” of Rogernomics do, Massey academic Chris Eichbaum argues in an intelligent book signposting “A Third Way for New Zealand” published late in 1999 and including a thoughtful chapter by former Council of Trade Unions economist Peter Harris, now on Michael Cullen’s staff.

Ms Clark has given sporadic indications she understands. Here and there in the election manifesto could be discerned resonances of the ideas Eichbaum, Harris and others canvass. But Labour has scarcely scratched the surface of the deep rethinking of the welfare state and its economics needed to construct a policy mix fully responsive to this decade’s challenges, around which consensus might develop and thence a durable new centre.

Ms Clark’s second challenge is the Alliance. The traditionalist majority in the Alliance – those who, like Jim Anderton, left Labour because it departed from tradition in the 1980s – can probably live with Labour in a new centre, as the overwhelmingly Labour tone of the Speech from the Throne suggests. But Laila Harré’s pre-Christmas demand to abandon the open economy suggests the Alliance’s smaller neo-marxist wing will make such an accommodation difficult.

The third challenge is the Green party. The Greens propose a new politics altogether, only the tip of which has so far shown through. This term they will be supportive, given some welfare state improvements and minor adjustments to free trade. But their differences with Labour are fundamental and will eventually show.

The fourth potential challenge is the National party. More on that next week.