Conference markers on the way to the centre

Go back 15 years. The Labour party was within a year of its second election in power. Five years later it was running third some of the time behind a party led by its self-exiled president, Jim Anderton.

Party conferences in that period were small and scratchy gatherings of the pathologically loyal. Some MPs, including one who is now a senior minister, contemplated life as a small, pure party slightly to the left of the centre, akin to the Socialist party in Italy.

Fast forward to this month’s conference. The game now is to cement Labour as the default governing party, commanding enough of the centre to lock out the old rival, National.

Note three conference markers on the way to this point.

In 1995 Labour chose as president Michael Hirschfeld, a millionaire liberal, over a candidate from the soft left which had dominated the organisation since the mid-1980s. At the same conference Helen Clark made her speech a credo of her political project and thus repositioned the parliamentary leadership nearer the organisation’s stance.

It also softened the disjunction between Labour and the Alliance, weakening the Alliance as a competitor for Labour-side votes, which culminated in the Alliance’s disappearance in 2002. (This may be what is going on between National and ACT right now.)

The 1997 conference was marked by an influx of new, younger, more “modern” people, attuned to social democracy in a economically globalised world. A fresh breeze blew through the greying ranks of 1970s soft-liberals.

The 2001 conference — in Auckland as this month’s is — was dedicated to staying in power. Debate was muted — most notably on four weeks holiday, which was shelved. An attempt to get Afghanistan on the agenda was shut down.

The question hanging over this month’s conference is whether Labour can make the next shift: to a party that governs long-term.

That is Clark’s big game. Operationally, it challenges National on its core territory. And National is off-guard.

Go back to 1989, sit in a National party conference and imagine a day when the MPs would be so dispirited they would elect as leader a man who had been in Parliament only 15 months. It is unimaginable to oldtimers of a party that in the 1950s made itself the party that governed long-term.

In the year since Don Brash took over as leader, he has rescued National from despair, hugely lifted membership, money and morale. But he is a political novice and in a hurry, even saying he is unlikely to stay leader if he isn’t Prime Minister after the next election. No leader whose overriding aim was to re-establish National as the party of long-run government would think that, let alone say it. His strategists have a problem.

Brash is also off-centre, really an ACT man ideologically. That is not the place from which to run a long-run government. Long-run governments hug the centre. If they lead, they make sure they are not too far ahead of public understanding. Steady-as-she-goes was the rule in the 1960s, National’s golden decade.

Clark also came to her leadership off-centre. In 1999 that didn’t matter because the electorate by and large felt the 1990s had been off-centre, so a modest correction — and she used that financial markets term — was a return to the centre.

But in her second term Clark overshot, on moral reform (prostitution, civil unions) and in deference to Maori. Since the brutal wake-up call administered by Brash’s Orewa speech the one-time farm girl Clark has been pulling back towards the centre.

So the Civil Union Bill is high tide — at least until public opinion shifts, which is unlikely for some years. In fact, if debate on the final stages of the bill look likely to take too much of a toll in opinion polls, the bill might just quietly fail.

And Treaty of Waitangi concessions are at high tide. The manoeuvring over the foreshore and seabed is the measure of that.

Those are over by Christmas. Watch then for a dose of conservative management through to the election and at most modest reform in a third term.

But can she hold her loyalists? Being a long-run government requires a massive mental shift from Labour activists who are agenda-pushers of one sort or another. Compromise for long-run government is not their instinct.

This month’s conference will give us a clue. It will be dedicated to staying in power, as in 2001. But that is no longer enough for Clark.