I'm a bear and I'm here to eat — I mean, hug — you

Right now, if she hadn’t jumped the gun midwinter, Helen Clark might be heading towards, or have just recently obtained, the majority she once coveted, or a result close to it.

A mid-October or early November election would have conferred a powerful benefit on Labour compared with the July one. Genetic modification would not bitten so hard.

There would have been three-four months, not three weeks, between the Greens’ walkout on the final reading of the bill fixing the end of the GM moratorium and Clark’s official calling of the election. That would have given time to cool off before the parties were in full campaign gear.

Also, Nicky Hager’s explosive book alleging conspiracies in high places over GM would have been argued over in the relative calm of normal politics, well before the election campaign. (Assuming, that is, that he is on the level that July was the publication date.)

Instead, because Clark called the election early, the fight over GM pitted the Greens as opponents of Labour when voters had supposed them allies.

That hurt both parties. Labour might well have got 44-46 per cent (which it says now it thought in May was its underlying support) and, with Jim Anderton, have got close to and maybe clinched the majority GM blew to smithereens. The Greens might have got closer to the 10 per cent they thought in early July was theirs.

One Labour self-justification for going early was that the messy Alliance-Anderton split would have corroded the government’s public support as the months passed. That is highly dubious. In responses to opinion pollsters the public had already long-since relegated the Alliance and Anderton to irrelevancy.

A second self-justification was that the economy was coming off the boil, which would slim support. In fact, the economy is still doing nicely where it counts for votes, in household finances. The mood reported by UMR-Insight has been steady and very strongly positive all year and economic optimism, as reported by Colmar Brunton, is close to the July level. (Approval for the government is well up on July.)

Another factor might have turned out differently. If Labour and the Greens had looked more of an item and not a couple in the throes of divorce, some voters might not have gone looking elsewhere. So New Zealand First’s and United Future’s votes might have been smaller. And National might just have done not so badly.

But what-ifs are not what-is. Clark actually got a more propitious outturn in July than if Peter Dunne’s United Future had struggled through to two or three seats in an election in October-November.

A majority or near-majority would have been a one-sided one, even if a small United Future had provided clincher votes. Clark now has instead a governing matrix reaching well across the divide into what should be National territory.

If she can cement the new matrix in place, she might set up a more stable long-term Labour-centred rule — albeit modified by some right-centrist and moral-conservative influence — than with a one-sided majority.

So far Labour ministers are on their best courting behaviour towards United Future. “I’m a bear and I’m here to hug you,” has been Labour’s line: extensive and intensive briefings, sweet words, cups of tea, a concession here and there and no demurring at United Future MPs’ breathless claims of a win here and a win there.

United Future MPs have reciprocated with agreements to speed bills through (so validating the public justification Clark gave for the early election and incidentally, as ACT points out, in effect also advancing bills they disagree with) and acceptance that for the most part they can get changes only at the margin. They have weathered with exemplary grace the incomprehensible attacks by National which one day might need them.

And this is now being meshed with consultation with the Greens. In the transport strategy due next month, ministers have been working with both supporting parties.

But so far it is still picnic time in the parliamentary woods. And what do bears do at picnics? They eat whatever they get their paws on.

The challenge for Clark and Dunne will be to keep Labour hugging, not munching, his brood. That makes July’s minority much more interesting than October’s mundane majority would likely have been.