Can conservative Clark hold Labour steady on course?

Within minutes of Nick Smith’s election as National’s deputy leader a parliamentary staffer sent me an email consisting solely of a questionmark. Bang on.

Smith swiftly delivered. Pathos followed apotheosis. Unifying management, the job of a real deputy, was swapped for impulse and division. Don Brash’s unorthodox — because novice — political style fell in its first hole.

Smith provided much wry mirth over coffees at United Future’s conference on Saturday. There will be more at Labour’s this coming weekend.

We will also hear much this weekend about National’s brash lurch to the right into ACT’s arms. This, we will be told in speeches and over beer and sandwiches, chardonnay and canapes, will open up such a wide space between Labour and National that Helen Clark, Warrior Queen fresh back from the military hotspots, will walk into a third term.

Some will say it gives Labour room to swing left safely. We will hear this weekend — as we heard in and around the Council of Trade Unions’ conference a fortnight ago — urgings to Labour to remember its friends and supporters, recover its historic mission and get on with it.

Till now friends and supporters have ranked keeping Labour in office absolute top priority: better a slow advance under a friendly government term after term after term than a shower of ideological sparks ending in a return to National’s mercies.

But over the past few months, as the government has begun to age, friends and supporters have elevated social reconstruction as a priority. There is still a clear preference for steady-but-sure over transitory nirvana. But it is not so dominant.

Many Labour urban liberals are closer to the Greens than Labour on genetic modification. That pumps Greens’ hopes they can lever the government into de facto prolonging the moratorium.

Many Labour activists and even some MPs are closer to Progressive MP Matt Robson and the Greens on peace, workplace and some social issues. Robson and the Greens are in that sense surrogate MPs for Labour’s left.

Now, with Brash sidling up to ACT and even United Future askance at that, surely, they suggest, Labour has more leeway to be Labour.

But Clark is playing a long game. That is to make Labour the dominant small-c conservative party, in tune with middling voters, mildly reforming but careful not to frighten too many horses. Brash’s record, by contrast, is a horse-frightener. So, hold your nerve and pluck the prize.

Bill English sussed this opportunity in the late 1990s, while still immured in a cabinet that sporadically rekindled market-based reforms. English reckoned the future belonged to a small-c conservative government and he wanted National to be that government.

English is no longer calling the shots — if, in fact, he ever called any. Brash is neither by temperament nor background a conservative. He is a CEO in style, certain of an ideology drawn from economic analysis.

But over time the party just possibly might change him as much as he it — turn him into a genuine leader, more recognisable to a largely conservative electorate. Moreover, confidence can be catching, even in the short term. Labour would be wise to keep its eyes and ears wide open.

Alternatively, or in addition, Labour might encounter stormy seas: a sag in the economy, internal dissension, difficulty governing in harness with the Greens after 2005, something untoward happening to Clark — there are occasions and circumstances when small-c conservatism is not enough (as National found in 1972).

That is not just vis-a-vis the unions, the left and the idealists, who yearn for a “light on the hill” but see only a faint flickering, who chafe at Labour’s modest tweaking of the regulatory framework and social services.

It is also sometimes the case with the wider electorate which judges governments by results at the household level. When things go well, as in the past four years, the results are good and the judgment kind. But when things go less well, what price then a confident, clear Brash?

In this government there is no equivalent of the Australian Labor Party’s shadow treasurer, Mark Latham, who wants tax cuts and advocates asset-based welfare and working much more inventively with local social entrepreneurs, nor even of his milder front bench colleague, Lindsay Tanner, who has just published a book musing on government in terms of relationships and who will be at the conference.

New Zealand Labour treads warily around the unorthodox. Talk of a journal to debate ideas has been stillborn. My mere mention early this year of Beehive interest in a British MP’s paper on the future of social democracy triggered an over-the-top, unfounded “leak” accusation against a former staffer.

But for now small-c conservatism works. Brash might usefully study Labour history as Britain’s Tony Blair described it recently: “…a well-intentioned pressure group…who know someone else is the governing party”. Ideology is an fickle political guidebook.