The man to rev up the Labour party

The mood turned in October. You could feel it. Nothing spectacular but a palpable drop in anger and gloom.

It showed last week in one poll in a better rating for the government. Whether it is the start of a long upswing, as happened for Jenny Shipley twice from around this time of the year, we will not know for months. But it comes just in time to rescue this coming weekend’s Labour conference from untoward introspection.

There were three ingredients in the left’s long slide from grace after March.

First, the economy went flat after the millennium and America’s Cup binges. The economy is now lifting again, though unspectacularly.

Second was the government’s contribution to the economic pause through policies which made business nervous or grumpy and which in May fed through into wider public sentiment.

The Prime Minister’s October 24 business summit, followed by Paul Swain’s buzzing e-summit a week later, have marked a turn in business sentiment to at least toleration and, in some quarters, willingness to edge alongside the government, whilst not approving the policy changes. Policy towards business henceforth mostly will be – except for a costly greenhouse gas policy – positive, albeit of the big sister kind.

The third ingredient in the long slide from March was Treaty of Waitangi policy. Eighty per cent of non-Maori at most tolerate the treaty claims settlement process and generally wish it behind us. It didn’t take rocket science to work out that upping the ante, as the Clark government has, would strain that toleration.

But Ms Clark misjudged the impact of the new dimension her new-generation Maori MPs would add to treaty issues. So, since September she has been trying to give treaty policy a more traditional Labour – that is, socioeconomic, not ethnic – look and feel and thereby try to neutralise the turnoff among Labour’s core white voters.

Given all that, one might expect this weekend’s “Victory 2000” conference to be subdued, even pensive. If delegates have been paying attention to Ms Clark’s recent speeches, they might also be a tad nervous.

As I flagged here last week, Ms Clark is shifting the focus from social policy to economic policy, now that the credit card is well under way. To the greying 1960s and 1970s retainers who still dominate attendances at Labour conferences, that might jangle an discomforting memory or two of the 1984 “victory” conference through which swept the first rivulets of the torrent that was to become Rogernomics.

But, of course, there is no parallel. Between 1984 and 2000 there was, for example, the 1995 conference, at which an embattled Ms Clark faced down her caucus detractors with a “personal” statement to the party of her intention to re-establish some traditional Labour values in policy. Which she has done.

But she has not revitalise the party organisation, which in the 1990s shrank to an ineffectual left cadre. Michael Hirschfeld, elected president in 1995, did provide a veneer of broader respectability. But Bob Harvey, to whom Ms Clark turned when Mr Hirschfeld died in January 1999, was so out of sync with her style and thinking that the party head office has been marginalised since. The election campaign was run from Ms Clark’s office.

So the spotlight shifts to Mike Williams, front-runner for president, backed by major unions and Ms Clark. Can he put the party organisation back in the picture?

Mr Williams is steeped in the party and in campaigning, having as a head office official in the early 1980s introduced direct marketing to politics – a skill he later parlayed into a lucrative business and comfortable retirement.

He rejoined politics last year as the party’s (unpaid) campaign manager and proved his worth as a tactician, cajoler of help and motivator of volunteers. Most important, he earned Helen Clark’s not lightly bestowed trust.

But he is no Clark stooge, planted to carry her writ even more deeply into Labour affairs. Mr Williams is a free spirit and very much his own man, at times an incisive, though loyal, judge of Ms Clark.

If he wins, he will be in effect an executive president. That should boost numbers and restore some of the long-lost influence. And that would make the Clark-Williams show one to watch.