The Big Game in this election

For 50 years till 1999 the National party ruled this country. Now Helen Clark wants Labour’s turn. That’s the big game on Saturday.

Labour had only walk-on parts in government during National’s half-century. The score was 38-12 to National. In 1996 there was even talk of Labour declining into a niche party.

Ironically, the very revolution in the 1980s which brought Labour to that pass has now also given it a rare chance to reshape the political landscape in its favour.

For Ms Clark this election is not just about another term for her government. It is a campaign to win for Labour dominance over the next 20 or 30 years. The next term may well be critical to that campaign.

Yet National could have headed this off. It could have forced Winston Peters into Ms Clark’s arms in 1996. Labour was weak, uncertain of its policy direction and unready to govern and investors would have been deeply suspicious. The coalition wouldn’t have seen out two years and Labour would have been savaged. Had National then reclaimed the centre, it could have re-established its hegemony and be on its second term back in office by now.

But Max Bradford found a way to a deal with Mr Peters. And Jim Bolger had a grim choice and so no choice: drinking whisky with Mr Peters or personal fadeout to oblivion. By doing the deal, Mr Bolger parlayed his way to Washington and now into Ms Clark’s growing pantheon of conservative crossover conservative appointees.

Jenny Shipley could still perhaps have begun National’s rehabilitation when she bumped Mr Bolger in late 1997. She could have built a new centrist conservatism on small-town values. Instead, she tried to restart the 1980s revolution. She failed at that and left open the centre ground for Ms Clark.

After the 1999 election National did have in its wings an instinctive centrist conservative, Bill English. But he dithered and the party dithered for nearly two years. By then Ms Clark had seized her opportunity.

A more unlikely revolutionary than Ms Clark would be hard to find. She is a conservative country lass. She has filled the slot that could have been Mrs Shipley’s.

Ms Clark has offered a change-averse electorate predictability and settlement. The electorate has jumped at the offer. National has been marginalised as it has not been since 1938. Mr English’s attempt to recover the centre has come too late, too slowly and with a lot of policy that looks very much 1990s.

And what were the 1990s for National? An average vote of 33.1% in the 1993, 1996 and 1999 elections. That should have rung alarm bells. National was a government on life support after mid-1991. The most cursory reading of those election numbers would suggest that any possibility of a quick return to office after 1999 would require a major repositioning.

That was not done. Labour is for now in command of the centre. Polls tell the story. The reaction to Ms Clark on her walkabouts tell it. A deluge of anecdotes from individuals, many of a National stripe, declaring for Labour tells it.

So, failing a seismic event in the next few days, Ms Clark will get a second term to bed in her new slightly left conservatism.

Is that enough for her project? Two terms, then off to New York or Geneva for a role with some international organisation?

No. Ms Clark’s unstated mission is to embed Labour language as the standard language of political argument and so Labour as the normal party of government. She is not there yet and may not be there even after a second term, though what she does in that second term may determine whether she can eventually get there.

Step back to 1949. Labour was ending 14 years in government during which it made the nation and its individuals secure. But it also bound them up very tightly. National loosened those bonds a little, added “freedom” to “security” (which it largely retained), promised middle-of-the-road conservatism and spent 29 of the next 35 years in government.

In 1999 the radical reformers (National from 1990) ended 15 years in government during which they opened up society and the economy. Ms Clark’s coalition added “security” to “freedom” (which it has largely retained) and she is in this election promising middle-of-the-road conservatism.

There is a beautiful symmetry there and beautiful symmetries are seductive.

But in real life, and especially in real politics, symmetries are illusory.

First, while in the 1950s socioeconomic position was a big factor in party allegiance, now psycho-social factors, which are more volatile, play a considerable part.

Second, National was able to secure its command over the centre in the 1950s partly because the economy rolled along nicely. Prospering voters are indulgent of governments.

The economy has gone very well for Ms Clark. What happens if the international economy goes sour, as the shares crisis suggests it may? Discombobulated voters do not indulge governments.

Even if the economy isn’t thrown off course by frightened American consumers, Labour is a long way from assured of the ascendancy Ms Clark is seeking. She has made a blistering start but this is a long game.

Whether she sets up Labour as the usual lead-party of government depends on two factors: who and what makes the “centre”; and who can best anticipate the future.

Part of National’s early success in the 1950s and 1960s was to take the role of modest liberaliser. In part that was responding to social change, in part leading it, though gently.

National thereby created acceptance of its broad policy positioning across a wide swathe of the political spectrum that even reached into Labour strongholds. Anyone who was not “extreme” in his or her views, while disagreeing with elements of that position, could generally live reasonably comfortably with it.

There is at this election widespread acceptance in that qualified way of Labour’s broad policy positioning: endorsement by the Greens, a large crossover support from National and Peter Dunne’s willingness to consider backing Labour.

Ms Clark has not just occupied a pre-existing centre. She is busy fashioning one by generating a policy position with which large numbers of people can live reasonably comfortably and she has assiduously back-cupboarded almost anything (including Labour’s PC values) and anybody who might be thought or come across as extreme (remember “closing the gaps” and no smoking in bars).

If you think of the centre as being all of the volume of a sphere except for areas close to the circumference (the “extremes”), Ms Clark has become acceptable to a large proportion of that centre.

Bill English well understands this process. Though he is correctly described as a centrist, that does not mean he is intent on adopting Labour policies and that way supplanting Ms Clark in the centre. He aims to fashion a set of policies with which large numbers in the centre can live reasonably comfortably and then promote them — that is, expand his share of the centre.

And he aims to do that in such a way that it will appeal at the far end of this decade.

For the moment, however, National still looks and sounds “extreme” to many people. That is not surprising because it is still parading many 1990s policies. Despite Mr English’s attempts to adopt some recognisably non-1990s positions (supporting some of Jim Anderton’s development initiatives, for example), the predominant tone for most people is 1990s extremism.

The challenge for National post-election is to change the predominant tone so that more of the centre see it as not “extreme”. That does not necessarily mean junking the 1990s policies but adjusting them, re-presenting them and putting new, non-extreme policies alongside them.

Can National do that without Mr English’s insights? There is no obvious candidate. Can it do it with Mr English’s uncharismatic public persona? Slowly at best.

But slowly might be enough. National is not out of the big game.

Ms Clark’s conservatism has consisted of two parts: adjusting some of the 1990s policies and taking only small steps down a new “economic transformation” path. “Incrementalism,” this is called by some in the party.

But incrementalism may by the mid-2000s leave Labour behind an English National party focused on 2012. Under-40s have a different view from over-40s of how society should work — they expect it more “customised” to their needs and government services are no exception. So far Mr English is closer to the under-40s’ instincts than Ms Clark. Over time the present under-40s will come to outnumber the present over-40s.

How will Ms Clark meet this challenge? Her record is caution. Her message in this campaign is soothing. The credit card is unchallenging and unexciting.

But hints keep seeping from the ninth floor of the Beehive that she will next term be bolder (in unspecified ways) and take more (unspecified) initiatives than she is letting on pre-election. Who can tell?

The big game is still in the first quarter.