Time for Clark to rethink

Did Helen Clark “win”? Yes and no. Even assuming she forms a government, she has some serious rethinking ahead.

She “won” by coming first in the vote on election night by a big enough margin to be sure (failing some new astonishment in the numbers) to have more votes than National in the final count.

She should logically also have more seats on the final count, if recent elections’ counts of the special votes are a guide, even if the Greens get the extra seat they expect and maybe Jim Anderton or the Maori party picks up an extra list seat.

It is conceivable Labour ends up with the same number of seats as National and Peter Dunne and Winston Peters choose to talk to National first, even given Labour’s greater vote — and, with ACT’s two seats, gets a majority. But the odds are on a third-term Clark-led government. So for now she has “won”.

But she also “lost”: in an economic boom she should have cantered home. Time for a rethink.

* First, a rethink of personal tax. By being a tax miser in the Budget she made a huge opening for Brash and John Key.

* Second, a rethink of “political correctness”. This phrase, which riles Labour ministers, is shorthand for getting too close to the outer skin of politics on civil and moral issues in service of Labour’s powerful internal identity groups, notably homosexuals and feminists.

The outer skin is no place for party that wants to stay above 40 per cent in order to set up a long-run government. It needs to be seen as centrist.

And that requires a shift from group politics to managerial politics. Voters respond less these days as members of groups — for example, the working class — than as individuals seeking the best deal. That was in part why Key’s tax cuts were so potent in the campaign.

Winning managerial politics also requires better regeneration of the cabinet than up till now.

* Third, Clark needs to rethink Treaty of Waitangi policy, to soothe the suburb-dwellers and provincials, many of them once Labour loyalists, who think, like Brash, that policy toward Maori has become “separatist” and that they are somehow disadvantaged.

At the same time Clark cannot leave the Maori party on the angry sidelines. It has won wider sympathy among Maori than its four seats suggest.

* And, fourth, Clark needs to rethink how to capture the nationhood theme she approaches in fits and starts, never achieving the confidence and the imagination it demands. Sam Neill did it for her at her campaign opening.

If Clark is to pull that off — as 1972-74 Prime Minister Norman Kirk did in her youth — she probably hasn’t got much longer to do it.

That is because Brash has got National close to power. A formidable team — very much attuned to managerial politics — is assembling around him and its future leader, Key, is already identified. Failing some mishap, such as the disappearance of New Zealand First if Winston Peters can’t hack it any more, National should lead the next government.

But Brash has some rethinking to do, too, if he wants to be a top Prime Minister, now or in two or three years. He played his minders’ games in this campaign; now he needs to connect party principle and policy more convincingly — not to mention doing some hard policy swot himself.

But Clark and Brash can steal away for a congratulatory moment or two: Clark for coming within sight of a third term (if that is the outcome); Brash for having blown a stiff and heady breeze into his party’s sails. That is the story — so far — of the 2005 election.