Government — or grievance?

Labour parties face a special challenge which conservative parties are usually spared: how to be in government and keep alive the reason for wanting to be in government.

British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair put it this way in his recovery speech at his party’s conference in September:

“Up to now there has been a ritual to Labour governments, Euphoria on victory. Hard slog in government. Tough times. Party accuses leadership of betrayal. Leadership accuses party of ingratitude. Disillusion. Defeat. Long period of Tory government before next outbreak of euphoria.

“For too many of our 100 years we have been a well-intentioned pressure group… Our psychology has been that of people who know, deep down, someone else is the governing party and we are the ones championing the grievance.”

Snap: the score here from 1949-99 was 38-12 to National.

So commentators are on alert for the break point, the moment Labour’s governing leadership comes adrift from its rank and file and the slide to defeat begins.

One leftwing commentator thought he had found it in the Labour council’s resolution in September backing the Greens’ firmer stance on the Gambling Act than ministers had agreed with United Future. He recalled the great fissure of 1989, when NewLabour broke with Labour over its economic reforms.

There is also evidence that some Labour activists, particularly middle-class urban liberals, sympathise with the Greens’ absolutist stance against genetic modification.

So will Labour’s conference this month [November] be a bitch session?

First, note Blair’s particular plight. A majority thought he told lies over Iraq and said it didn’t trust him. The Tories got ahead in the polls. The great majority of his party, some heavyweights included, deplored the Iraq adventure as apostasy — nearly as great as David Lange’s on the economy in the 1980s.

But also note that Blair got a seven-minute standing ovation — after one on his arrival and frequent applause while he spoke.

Lange would have given a political arm and leg for that in his second term. His 1987 conference, after a thumping electoral victory, was a battlefield. While he and his ministers were embarking on a second term in office, Labour party activists were re-entering opposition. Just as Blair depicted.

Third, note a difference between Helen Clark and Blair and Lange.

Blair (over Iraq) and Lange (over the economy) departed resoundingly from Labour orthodoxy. Clark has by and large been heading back towards Labour orthodoxy. The pace has been gentle and there have been detours but the direction is clear. For believers, this is the best and most competent Labour government since the first (as Blair’s is, too, minus Iraq).

To suggest therefore that Labour is about to blow apart as in the 1980s (and as the Alliance in 2001-02) is misguided.

Or premature.

The spectre of some future disjunction will sit quietly at the back of the Christchurch Convention Centre on November 7 — the conference venue where in 1997, after a grim decade, there appeared initial evidence of a rank-and-file recovery which underpinned Clark’s surge to power in 1999.

Two years ago the conference was tightly disciplined. A murmur about four weeks holiday was stilled — self-censorship was the order of the day. An attempt to stir about Clark’s haste into Afghanistan with George Bush was stillborn.

Self-censorship will not be needed on four weeks holiday this year: ministers have signalled four weeks for next term. GM might stir a trifle more edginess. Clark’s despatch of army engineers to Iraq to work under Blair’s command will have its opponents. For liberal-left believers, conservative United Future is an uncomfortable coalition fit.

By and large, however, Clark, is still edging down the route her troops want her to: forecasts of $500 million next year for welfare reform and tax cuts for the low-paid are a big Labour plus. And being in government is still widely preferred in the party over being pure in opposition.

So Clark should get to the 2005 election still in good repute with activists. But after that, what?

Clark is still some distance from Labour orthodoxy and will take several terms yet at her pace to get there. Will the faithful wait?

Alternatively, can activists adjust to a new Labour orthodoxy: being the party of government, Labour values constrained by pragmatic responsiveness to the popular will?

That is the real test for Blair and his party — and at some point for Clark, too, if she is to make Labour a long-run government.