The election of four quarters

It was an election in four quarters.

First quarter: Helen Clark is back in government, with flexible options and a 2.5 per cent rise in share of the vote from election night 1999. And Labour has a higher seat count: 52 against 49.

As she pointed out on Saturday, that rise puts Clark alongside Michael Joseph Savage in 1938 and David Lange in 1987.

She is in the classic Norwegian position she has always advocated: in tightly knit government drawing support from her left (the Greens) and her right (United Future) according to the issues. So the Greens’ threat of parliamentary mayhem on genetic modification after October next year is not the bogey it might have been.

If Clark does stick to a Labour-plus-Jim Anderton government and not a wider coalition, she will be more dominant than in the last Parliament. The Progressive Coalition’s two MPs will not be able to shadow all portfolios as the Alliance did.

Though Anderton and Matt Robson have clear policy differences, they will in effect be little more than a distinct faction in a Labour government. The simple numbers make that point.

The simple numbers also take the gloss off Labour’s rise. The government’s vote share dropped 2.4 per cent, even if you include the Alliance’s paltry 1.75 per cent as part of the government. Fifty-nine seats have become 54.

Savage’s vote share rose 8.7 per cent from 1935 (if you include Ratana MPs as Labour in 1935) and Lange’s 5.0 per cent from 1984.

And, of course, the majority that looked within Clark’s grasp in June, when polls had Labour at 53 per cent, is now a wisp of wistfulness. That 12 per cent fall is a terrible plunge.

The second quarter is that new centre: Dunne’s amazing worm-driven rise. As far back as April Dunne made it clear he could work with Clark now. But his voting record in the past two Parliaments and the instincts, inclinations and religious affiliations of his eight new colleagues are closer to National’s than Labour’s — and even more distant from the Greens.

Operationally, the new force can be a centrist balance between Labour and National. But it will generate a rightwards tug on Labour, particularly on economic and moral issues, if Labour splits with the Greens.

This spells out a second mixed message on the figures. Abstract United Future from a left-right calculation and there was a 1.5 per cent swing to the left, counting Labour, Anderton’s Progressive Coalition, the Alliance and the Greens as left and National, ACT and New Zealand First as right.

But add United into the right and there was a 2.1 per cent swing to the right. The party of the left, the Alliance, has evaporated: 18 per cent in 1993, 10 per cent in 1996, 8 per cent in 1999 and now a total of 3 per cent.

Take your pick on that swing arithmetic. But one swing was unmistakable: Winston Peters’ leap from 4.2 per cent to 10.6 per cent.

Peters is the election’s third quarter.

On his three issues — crime, the Treaty and immigration — he is aligned with the right. However much he kept options open of working with Clark, those three stances would have been an insurmountable barrier.

New Zealand First will be just another opposition party in this Parliament. But Peters represents many decent folk worried about national cultural security and unity. They are not all fascists or rednecks, as National and Labour liberals like to pretend.

Finding a way of drawing those people into the mainstream will be a big challenge for Clark. Europe is the spectre if she fails.

Then there is the fourth quarter: the rump right, ACT and National.

ACT held its vote and can now progress president Catherine Judd’s rebranding “liberal project”.

But disaster has hit National.

Its 21.1 per cent is not only its lowest score but the lowest for a major party since the Conservatives got 20.6 per cent in 1902. (The remnant Liberals got a total of 23.7 per cent in 1925.)

National’s ranks have been scoured and deprived of three new list stars it desperately needed. It has to rethink and rebuild from the ground up.

That will require recognition (a) that the electorate doesn’t make mistakes, as MPs too readily thought it had in 1999 and (b) that the electorate doesn’t want reruns of the 1990s.

Bill English has the instincts to do both. Does he have the authority? The devastation may help cement him, at least for at time.

And 1902 offers some hope. The shattered Conservatives initially disbanded as an official opposition. Then William Massey reassembled them into Reform, which won office in 1912 and ruled until 1928.

But that is long-term. With her main opponent on the canvass, Clark now has the opportunity to set up a third term — and to win the big game that run underneath this election: deciding who will write the political language of the first quarter of this century.

Margaret Thatcher did that in Britain in the 1980s. She had vote shares similar to Clark’s 41 per cent.

Footnote: The poll of polls in Friday’s Herald proved highly accurate, except for overstating Green and understating United Future support. “Bugger the pollsters,” said Jim Bolger in 1993 as he slid to a knife-edge majority; bouquets are in order this time.