What Clark could do if she is to win a fourth term

Here’s how Helen Clark and Labour might get a fourth term. Yes, a fourth term. That is, another term after this one.

Labour last got a third term in 1943. Since then Labour and the country have got used to Labour governments being cameo parts between long periods of National party rule.

So a third term is a huge prize for Labour. Surely, a fourth term is just fanciful.

The general presumption is that National’s 39 per cent in last month’s election presages a walk-in in 2008. Its up-and-coming 40-somethings will give it ascendancy in the House and the country this term. It will have only to fall over the line in 2008. So goes the received wisdom.

No so fast.

Don Brash’s 39 per cent last month was mostly the recovery of National’s former vote. He did not reel in much vote across the line from Labour. To do that National will need to widen its policy pitch and its representative reach — or 39 per cent will be a ceiling, not a platform.

It might, of course, just bank on being carried to the Treasury benches by natural attrition of a long-lived government’s support. But that reckons on Clark deciding to be a sitting target.

She certainly is a target. Many men (probably mostly the sort who wish for compliant, frilly women) and some women who would otherwise like to be thought ladylike use vitriolic and even vile language about her.

You or I would crumple under such hate. Clark has lived with it from her earliest days in politics as a woman determined to win in a man’s game and change that game. That has given her a highly tempered inner steel.

When the young Clark ran for the Labour party executive she was white-anted by the Engineers Union after being told she had the numbers. She was distraught. But a year later she not only won but, as an executive member, impressed misogynistic and anti-academic party and union bosses enough to survive a subsequent cleanout of MPs from the executive.

In early 1989, soon after she was made Minister of Health a close colleague found her in tears. Finance Minister David Caygill had ordered a cut in her budget, the antithesis of what she had come into politics to do. She hunkered down, made the cut and later that year was Deputy Prime Minister.

In June 1996 a cabal of senior Labour MPs wanted her out as leader. She faced them down, privately and publicly, and went on to run a strong election campaign and lay the base for her 1999 win.

This year the National party went for her with personalised attack billboards. Don Brash was still attacking her integrity on election night. Clark fought an emotion-charged campaign and was on a roller-coaster on election night as the results careered from pro-National to pro-Labour. The accumulated strain was brutally visible, husband Peter Davis holding her close to him walking into Labour’s headquarters.

The result: you can bet that inner steel has been tempered some more. This woman has deep reserves and deep resolve.

And she wants a fourth term.

She also knows she has to work for it. Her 41 per cent is 2 per cent up on her 1999 39 per cent, only the third time in 100 years (1919 and 1943) that vote share in a third win has been higher than in the first. But holding 41 per cent in 2008 will be a big stretch.

Here are five things that could do it.

1. Replenish her cabinet and her caucus. We are told to expect big cabinet changes and Clark has been doing one-on-one “job interviews” with her MPs. But her new-blood options for new blood are thin and she also needs new and more energy on her back benches. One possibility: persuade some list MPs to retire mid-term and bring in some brighter list candidates off the bench well before 2008.

2. Get on top of some tough management issues, particularly energy, roads and tertiary education. This should be do-able because Labour has no great pressing legislative ambitions.

3. Reconnect with the disaffected and dubious. Clark has been calling in a range of non-government folk for intelligence and suggestions. Can she turn that into a national programme?

4. Rebalance and reshape the Treaty of Waitangi debate/argument. The time has come (and Clark knows it) for hard talk — not to roll back Maori rights, Brash-style, but to move on from rights claims to lifting aspirations and achievement among ordinary Maori and focus sceptical and angry non-Maori on their self-interest in Maori success. Hard talk is tense because it fronts fixed judgment in all its forms: prejudice, sentimentalism, ideology and unrealism. But fixed judgment not fronted turns to iron in the soul.

5. Build on her high standing in the arts community to generate a broader public confidence in and celebration of the nation — find an inspirational speechwriter and deliver the speeches.

Clark’s record so far is caution, not the boldness and passion implied in those five challenges. But her record is also one of evolution and resolution. Don’t write up a fourth term — the odds point the other way. But don’t write it off either.