The core of the community card issue

What do Sir John Marshall, Sir Robert Muldoon and David Lange have in common as Prime Ministers? Answer: their administrations neglected their core vote.

Sir John was Prime Minister for 10 months at the end of the 1960-72 National government. A quintessential believer in the maxim, “politics is the art of the possible” (which then meant “what the centre will buy”), Sir John used to tell Nationalists agitating for policies more closely attuned to the party’s stated right-of-centre principles that voters wanting such policies had nowhere else to go but National.

Sir Robert (boss from 1975-84) declared himself the “ordinary bloke’s” Prime Minister and converted many blokes from Labour to National — some even into party membership, to traditional Nationalists’ distaste.

Both prime ministerships ended in landslides to Labour.

Mr Lange presided (1984-89) over a Labour administration which was in many ways definitely Labour but was definitely not Labour in economic, fiscal and state management policy. He escaped personal defeat but even as he won a second term in 1987 Labour’s core vote was ebbing away, leading to disaster in the 1990 election.

Can Helen Clark avoid the same mistake?

You would think not. She has set out to obliterate the Lange government’s economic apostasy. She has listened responsively to the unions, representing an important chunk of Labour’s core vote. She has fashioned a raft of policies reflecting Labour’s principles. She understood back in 1996 that core Labour voters want a harder line on crime.

Mr Lange, who has long since distanced himself from his own government, gave her mostly a tick in his Bruce Jesson memorial lecture last November.

But a questionmark still hangs over her government’s core credentials. Steve Maharey and Annette King brought it into sharp relief last week.

At issue is the priority ranking for battlers in the workforce and those on benefits and national superannuation.

The cabinet last week ranked superannuitants higher than low-income battlers. Superannuitants and beneficiaries keep their community service cards as their incomes go up, indexed to inflation. Battlers, who have to bargain for wage rises, do not keep their cards if their incomes go up similarly.

The cabinet’s top-of-mind reflex, reflecting adherence to the admirable adage that a society is judged by how it treats its weakest members, was to see to the 1270 superannuitants who stood to lose their cards.

The battlers were not top-of-mind. And that illustrates a political blind spot in the cabinet. Working families on low-to-average incomes are Labour’s (and the Alliance’s) core vote.

They struggle to make ends meet. If non-working state dependants down the street get favoured treatment, they have grounds for grievance. Too many such grounds will generate disaffection.

And, without that core vote locked in, Labour will whistle in the wind for the 42 per cent it needs for long-term rule.

Mr Maharey notes in the cabinet’s defence that it will now work up a better system for access to health care for low-to-average-income families. This, he argues, will reflect the cabinet’s concern for those families.

But the superannuitants got an automatic tick and the battlers were an afterthought. That tells us that, with Mark Gosche a notable exception, few ministers instinctively empathise with their core vote from their own experience. Too many ministers learnt their politics in the university common room, not on the streets.

Of course, Labour’s leadership can reassure itself that the core vote “has nowhere else to go” except to another left party. National and ACT are not (yet) convincing alternatives and New Zealand First has fizzled out.

But some small signs might give pause for thought. Michelle Boag’s presidential nomination by the conservative central North Island region on Sunday hints at revitalisation in the National air. Labour’s low 39 per cent vote in 1999 indicates the glue between it and its core vote is weak — as last year’s readily repeatable opinion poll plunge showed.

The comfort for Labour is that it is only the first term and in the past it has taken more than one term to shake the core loose. The question is how careful ministers will be not to shake it.