With a little help from her friends

Max Bradford is the National party’s obvious shadow finance minister: a trained economist, experienced in a range of relevant activities, not too right of centre. But he is politically scarred so the party is firing him.

That is a wry irony. It was Bradford who, in the teeth of dogged opposition as the Shipley government wound down, started the creep centrewards that Bill English now wants to speed up. But it was also Bradford who promised electricity price falls in the teeth of the rises after his deregulation. So he is top villain to the National rank and file.

The gaucheness of his ouster would ordinarily count against National in popular opinion. But it won’t: the public is paying National hardly any attention because it doesn’t (yet) think the party is genuinely in the hunt for a win next year.

Why? Because Labour is squashing sideways into territory a reconstructing National might have occupied in the late 1990s if it had paid more attention to politics and less to economics, more to Bradford and less to Bill Birch.

Instead of New National, we are getting New Labour (the Blair, not the Anderton, version). It’s not revivalist but it is a revival and it is a political phenomenon.

For a decade and a-half until 1997 Labour’s annual conference dwindled, balded and wrinkled a bit more year by year. One year it filled no more than a corner of the Canterbury University Students Union building.

Contemporary journalists who were thus annually shown the mirror to our own decay were gifted a ghostly memento at last weekend’s Labour conference opening night — an eerily exact live rendition of Joe Cocker’s wildly inexact rendering of the Beatles’ “Help from my friends”.

Thus were we transported three decades back to an era of hope and genteel radicalism and the top leadership’s political awakening. Many of that generation knew only too intimately the “friends” — but now, grizzled in government, cannot bring themselves to legalise the amicable weed.

A divide has been crossed. In 1997 some younger people turned up and helped expand the conference to passably fill the Christchurch convention centre. That was the first harbinger of the 1999 win.

Sixties-seventies Cocker is now just reminiscence. Harry Lauder’s “Keep right on till the end of the road” would have better captured the mood of the now matured 50-somethings and the so-sensible younger things.

Delegates recited to me unprompted the new catechism: “People have to see Labour as the normal party of government. We have to stay in three terms.”

So, of course, there is no rush. Helen will see the party and the programme through in the second and third terms.

The conference was in no mood to ripple the pond across which they believe she glides — no argument, just polite discussion. Take Afghanistan, take genetic modification, take health funding …

Take four weeks annual leave, declared “bedrock policy” by workshop chair John Fenton and thus, Engineers Union official Paul Tolich politely mused, a possible candidate for a two-thirds vote on the conference floor to force it into next year’s manifesto. After all, it was the big event at the conference in the very same place three years ago.

No way. Fenton, who is married to high-profile unionist Darien Fenton, declared a “consensus” not to do that. No one challenged him.

This is now a party of near wall-to-wall politeness and moderation. Helen Clark’s trademark late entries, by 27 minutes each, for her and British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s keynoters, were fine with the faithful.

Clark is the Labour party right now. Where she goes, it goes.

And where might that be to? A team in Clark’s office is mining a raft of reports (Business Herald, November 5, p1). Bits of policy are starting to emerge from this, among them Monday’s “talent visas”.

In February in her annual statement to Parliament Clark will pull this together. It will not quite be a manifesto for the next three years but it will lay a framework for economic strategy which she made clear on Saturday is now central to her work.

It will not be radical, though it will be innovative here and there. Clark is bedding in a small-c conservative government. Her adoring troops approve. The Cocker rave is history.