The nudge party v the niche party

Helen Clark goes to this weekend’s Labour party conference a leader in command, as none has been since Peter Fraser. The shy policy wonk of 20 years ago has become this country’s most commanding Prime Minister in half a century.

That long? Wasn’t Sir Robert Muldoon a powerhouse? Not like Clark is. He lost the feel of the electorate. Two years after his 1975 landslide he was within three months of losing a safe rural seat in a by-election and within a year winning fewer votes than Labour in a general election.

Clark’s skill has been to hold and cement her support base with policies to its taste and gradually to widen her range of appeal, building personal networks across a remarkable range of the social and economic landscape. Clark is constructing a new centre.

And she has Jim Anderton, who has glued back on to Labour some of the disgruntled old left.

But how sticky is his glue? It has worked in Parliament till now. But what has he got outside? A bunch of people who flatly oppose politics as compromise and whose departure Labour did not mourn in the 1989 split that spawned NewLabour and then the Alliance.

They want a “niche” party: stand uncompromisingly on your principles and win 5 per cent nationally among those of like mind. Against that Anderton poses the “nudge” party: ally yourself to a big party that can win the centre (and government) and nudge it as far in your direction as your numbers will permit.

So Anderton has compromised and compromised with Labour to rack up his numerous small gains. But this sidelines the millennial socialism “niche” advocates preach. Moreover, they say, to win Wigram he must pitch to voters way outside the niche. Dump him, some of them say: he is just a wing of Labour now.

Dump Anderton and where would he go? Quite possibly to be Labour’s Wigram candidate. And where would the Alliance go? Under 5 per cent. If millennial socialism was the beacon to the future, the Alliance’s voting trajectory would have been up, not down from 18 per cent in 1993 to 10 per cent in 1996 to 8 per cent in 1999.

The “nichevoes’ ” response is that it is Anderton’s failure to preach millennial socialism that has brought the Alliance low. See how well the Greens have done standing on principles, they say. They might add: see how Act, muddying its principles with unrelated populism, has lost traction.

All very logical, except that the old left has not become the new left. Theorists have striven mightily, only to come up with a hotchpotch: something old, something new, something borrowed, something — well, red, er, green, er�

“Red-green” was the clarion call a decade or so ago. But if you mix (old) red and (new) green you get brown, which is why the Greens had to leave the Alliance.

So the theorists also borrow indigenous rights and feminism and other such -isms — some of the most impenetrable writing in politics is by neo-marxist feminists. But even with all that, the Alliance is not offering a different paradigm, as are the Greens with their celebration of the whole individual and oneness with all living things.

The Alliance remains affixed to the spectrum that runs from Stephen Franks of Act across to Laila Harr�, easily the Alliance’s brightest MP.

And on that spectrum the Alliance is Labour-plus, a “nudge” party. There are some points of disjunction, in free trade, for instance. But most Alliance policies are for more of what Labour wants but doesn’t dare because it has to build and hold its new centre.

Jim Anderton is through round one. But acolytes who cheered him to the rafters in 1989 aren’t cheering now. The risk is fewer footsloggers in next year’s election.

To which the Anderton camp’s riposte is that they aren’t footslogging now. For four years MPs have complained that local Alliance groups have not organised to lever contact and publicity from MPs’ visits around the country. The last week’s manoeuvrings have been over control of the party. Matt McCarten is in the fight of his life.

So there is cause for Labour sadness amid its celebrations this weekend. Labour wants to dominate its coalitions and wants the Anderton version of the Alliance. But it also wants the Alliance alive — not least for fear of the Greens’ different and indigestible paradigm.