Can the "knowledge society" get Labour back to the mainstream?

Now the H-word is coming back to haunt Labour backbenchers in a very personal way. The polls are giving them their first foretaste of defeat in 2002. What is their government to do?

This year has been spent honouring the “credit card’s” seven promises and ministers are congratulating themselves that they are now well through that. Money is being spent, programmes are in train, laws have been passed or are being drafted.

But the “credit card” was mostly about undoing bits of the 1990s. What can backbenchers take to the 2002 election?

At issue are values. The left won in 1999 because National was out of step with mainstream values for almost all the nine years it was in office and eventually a credible alternative government hove in sight.

In 1999 spending more on health and education and rebalancing workplace relations and the like sounded nearer to mainstream values than yet more free trade, deregulation, individual responsibility and international competitiveness.

But we heard little, and that vague, from Labour last year about the 2000s: hymns to greenness, localness and knowledge, to which this year has been added “closing the gaps”, with no unifying theme.

There was no parallel within Labour to the argument within National from its front-bench thirty-somethings that the battles of the 1980s and 1990s did not need to be refought every week, as Sir William Birch and Jenny Shipley and Lockwood Smith and John Luxton were doing.

In implementing the credit card, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen and Steve Maharey and Phil Goff and Jim Anderton have also been refighting those battles. But those are not the battles on which elections in the 2000s will be fought. On the back benches, paralleling National, new Labour MPs of the class of ’99 are beginning to organise to argue for a shift of gear, a strategy to refashion the role of the government in a globalised world.

This is not factionalism. They support the credit card as far as it goes.

Moreover, it comes just as the top brass has begun groping for a unifying and forward-looking message – plus a structure, monitoring and organisation to get ministers on message and get it across to the citizenry.

The government’s communications, internally and externally, have been amateurish, at times chaotic and sometimes destructive, creating tensions between ministers and confusion about policy and direction. In short, the government has been unprofessional. Unprofessional governments don’t last.

A first tiny sign of reform came at Ms Clark’s press conference on Monday: a list of initiatives to expect during this week.

The test will be the unifying message.

This is actually on the credit card at No 1: the knowledge society. In place of the 1970s social rhetoric we have been hearing of health care, education, housing and the poor is supposed to come a tougher 2000s rhetoric tied back to economic policy: educating and skilling for the new international economy; closing the gaps so Maori and Pacific islanders can be economically productive; pumping up research and development to spawn higher-tech, higher-value enterprises.

Ms Clark’s hui with business chiefs on 24 October fits into this. The economy – and so the government – will go nowhere if influential business remains sceptical or hostile or just nervous or uncertain, which the credit card has made them. Hence, over the past few months I have been coming across Ms Clark’s tracks in some interesting, un-Labour, places – private business tete-a-tetes, at which she has taken notes.

But business’s values are not ordinary folks’ values. What has Ms Clark’s drive for a “partnership” with business got to do with the mainstream? Was it not business values that got National so out of step?

Yes, but one of mainstream households’ most important values is to hold their own financially each year. Business uncertainty and its accompanying rhetoric have undermined that.

When, in addition, ministers began heading down a Treaty of Waitangi track that opponents (wrongly but resonantly) call “apartheid”, the government went dangerously adrift of mainstream values.

What’s new? For 50 years Labour has been out of the mainstream. It is asking a lot of the “knowledge society” to reconnect Labour now.