Battling for the mainstream

This year is the halfway point in the 2000s decade. It is also a decider in the contest between the two big parties to be lead party for the next while.

National was the lead party in the 50 years to 1999. Though towards the end its grip was shaky, the odds in 2000 were it would reassert its grip. But Helen Clark’s Labour party has stolen a march.

The simple rule in the twentieth century was that Labour represented sectional interests and its members had ideological agendas which, pushed too far, disconnected it from mainstream voters.

National’s priority was to govern, not to push a set of agendas. Ideologues and radicals were a small minority in its ranks. Mildly reforming conservatism was the secret of its hold on the mainstream.

But the 1980s revolution threw the cards in the air. Labour ministers heavily increased social spending but their economic management diametrically opposed its special interest groups’ agendas — and hurt many ordinary folk.

Moreover, its special interest groups had multiplied. In the 1940s Labour was predominantly the party of the unions, which represented most workers. But by the 1970s unionised manual workers were fewer in number and Labour was increasingly influenced by special interest groups pushing rights for women, Maori, ethnic minorities, gays and other disadvantaged or angry groups. The connection with the mainstream frayed badly.

Then National also came adrift. A bout of populism with Sir Robert Muldoon weakened its appeal to its core vote. A bout of radicalism with Ruth Richardson undid its moderate, mainstream image and spawned New Zealand First. It held power through the 1990s only because Labour was desperately weak.

Nevertheless, a coterie of younger MPs, centred around Bill English, projected a new conservatism — market-oriented but not radical in economics, mildly reforming but attentive to the desire for moderation in other policies.

Once National had put the 1990s behind it, logic suggested these up-and-comers would gazump Labour’s likely leftish, sectional-interest orientation once its novelty had worn off in government.

And, indeed, Labour introduced a raft of policies and laws, most recently civil unions and the smoking ban, that should logically have played into National’s hands.

But half a century in power had eviscerated National and wearied voters. Bill English could articulate the new conservatism in private but couldn’t project it in public.

On the other side of the ledger the economy delivered growing prosperity and Labour did not go overboard with leftish, sectional-interest policy. So National and English bombed in 2002.

Switching to Don Brash hasn’t worked. Michael Cullen put his finger on the problem when he said in December’s adjournment debate that Brash is “ACT’s tenth MP”.

He isn’t. But that is his reputation. If National is to head off Labour this year it has to perform an extraordinary feat: recast policy as centrist (non-ACT, non-Richardsonian) while making the most of Brash’s natural authority.

The one policy area where his authority worked (initially) is Maori rights. In the history of polls there has been nothing like the bounce after last year’s Orewa speech.

But that is not a whole election policy, still less a government policy. In any case, Labour, with New Zealand First’s help, has drawn a fair amount of its sting — especially after iwi took up arms against the Foreshore and Seabed Act and swarmed to Tariana Turia’s new party.

From looking like the Maori party after Orewa, Labour has manoeuvred itself somewhere nearer the mainstream on Treaty issues. Brash began to sound shrill as he sought ground out to the right. The same goes for his slogans on law and order and education and — until his U-turns into the arms of his centrists on superannuation, holidays and tax — on the economy, too.

Has National repositioned in time to save the 2005 election? Probably not. And, if not, it might be even harder after 2008 to reclaim lead-party status.

That is because Clark and Labour are recasting themselves as mainstream, playing on notions of heritage and national pride, moderate economic management, the “ownership society” and an end to special interest legislation (at least for a time).

This doesn’t decide the contest. If National’s centrists emerge strongly in the next term and if Labour fudges the language and the symbolism, National might yet regain the initiative.

But being in government confers a great advantage. If National concedes another three years to Labour this year, that might seal the contest. A sobering thought for Brash and his band.