Taking the fright out of politics

The message from John Howard to Helen Clark is that if she wants three terms it will help if she picks and soothes the electorate’s frights.

Howard made up ground steadily all year, with policy backflips and high dives and oodles of money. But suburban fright at real and imagined Asian perils gave him his election-night cushion.

Clark has got the general message. Though once anti-war, she is yielding not a millimetre on the Afghan war. She used up some political capital taking Tampa refugees. Going AWOL on Arabs and Afghans right now is unthinkable.

So there she is, knives on her chariot wheels, riding with the Valkyries … actually, not quite, but you get what I mean. Firm, reassuringly resolute, a Prime Minister for uncertain times.

With help from Bill English, who has jumped in the same tactical hole as Jenny Shipley did over Singapore free trade, opportunistically, but also incomprehensibly, threatening withdrawal of support for something his party backs to the hilt.

And with help from Alliance potentate Jim Anderton, who faced down mutiny in his ranks to prove himself once again the glue in this government. No prodigal son of Labour has done more to deserve to feast on the fatted calf.

He had no choice, you might say. If the coalition collapsed at this time into an election, the Alliance would lose seats and the Greens gain. That would mean life on the margins, in the twilight.

But actually Anderton has made a choice. He has committed himself to governing and has found personal reward in building up his economic development portfolio far beyond the playpen Labour planned for him.

What do his Alliance opponents offer? Veteran leftwinger Len Richards gave the clue in an interview for television: “We fought against the Vietnam war”.

A three-decades-old emotion.

You can say the same of mantras about the workers’ struggle. Once unions undoubtedly spoke for workers, when they were mostly unionisable and unionised. But now, as Margaret Wilson, no raving rightwinger, has noted, many workers, particularly in information and communications technology, don’t want union help.

To which you might add: many others have got out of the habit. That is a legacy of National’s union-bashing Employment Contracts Act; it is also a product of a diversifying society. That is why Wilson left individual contracts in her union-friendly Employment Relations Act.

So to presume — as the Alliance does and as Australian Labor does — that unions represent all or even most embattled suburban families, as they once did, misses the point.

Of course, unions do represent large numbers of employees, especially in the public sector, which is the last great factory complex, with its production-line hospitals, schools and universities. But as a proportion of the total, that is only a frail minority. The Council of Trade Unions’ intelligent new top brass has recognised that and is adjusting.

Across the Tasman unions have much greater strength and much greater influence on the Labor party. But even there unions no longer reach wide enough to transmit accurately to Labor leaders the fears of ordinary suburban folk amid the fracturing realities of social change.

The left’s great sounding device of the twentieth century has its receptors too narrowly tuned for the twenty-first. Howard sensed the fears better through his fingertips. Labor lost heavily in what used to be its heartlands.

Clark needs unions for organisational reasons, so she is sensitive (up to a point) to their needs. And she isn’t your average suburban mum, instinctively aware of suburban fears.

But, having seen 1980s Rogernomics trash Labour’s core vote, which she has only just got back, she is not about to lose it if she and her focus groups can help it. More hospitals and schools are only part of the story. It is also about frights, which can cut across old ideologies.

Ideologies can work for niche players, as Greens have shown on both sides of the Tasman. But a big player needs the suburbs. Its game is won or lost on strength that looks like conviction, reassurance and down-to-earth practicality.

Howard had just enough of that. Clark looks like she has too. Which means, right now, a tiny bit of war. The Alliance isn’t going anywhere.