On its 90th anniversary can Labour really renew?

The Labour party bothers about its brand. So what brand does it want you to see at its ninetieth anniversary conference this coming weekend?

Claire Robinson, an academic specialist in political marketing, highlights two elements in a successful brand: consistency plus refreshment.

Consistency builds familiarity. People more easily trust a leaning they have toward a party (or leader — or soft drink or car) if they feel they know the party (leader, soft drink, car). Refreshment adds allure, enhances the brand.

Applying this to National lends a rationale for keeping Don Brash. For three elections running it changed its leader: first-woman-Prime-Minister Jenny Shipley for 1999, young-dinkum-Kiwi-family-man Bill English for 2002 and inflation-busting, I’m-not-really-a-politician Don Brash for 2005.

Those changes denied National brand consistency. So (the theory says) would changing leaders again for 2008 — to, say, state-house-to-Parnell-mansion charmer and go-getter John Key. Therefore keep Brash, hope to wise him up politically (and hope for no more skeletons) and refresh the 2005 brand by projecting the much strengthened front bench — notably Key and a much self-re-engineered English.

Apply this to Labour. What does it need to do to its brand to get a fourth term?

The answer Labour itself gave after the 2005 election was: the Helen Clark brand (consistency) plus “rejuvenation” and “renewal” (refreshment).

The Clark brand is still strong but it has been corroded by her glowering intransigence on election spending. This has stirred a useful angry energy among party members who feel Labour is the victim of a peremptory and unfair rule change. But if Clark doesn’t now turn sunnier and forward-looking, her ugly-angry look might set in as the new element in Labour’s brand and blot out the party’s own attempt at refreshment.

But can Labour actually rejuvenate and renew and, if it can, will it and, if it does, will voters notice?

Small signs suggest it can. Thirty-and-40-somethings who want Labour’s ideas-base modernised swept policy council elections last year. This year a breezy 25-year-old, Kate Sutton, who already has a fund-raising track-record, is contesting the iconic women’s vice-presidency against veteran Jo Fitzpatrick.

Also, surprising in a third term, the regional conferences in April-May had on show new delegates. That signals there may be a respectable pool of able 40-somethings available to spruce up the party’s list, which had a tired look in 2005.

But, while Jim Sutton (no relation to Kate) is out to grass and Charles Chauvel is in, there is not a long queue of MPs aspiring to retire and so far Clark has shown little stomach for the hard word. She has maybe another 12 months to move lesser lights on. Then she has to be much tougher about the list than in recent selections if the media, and in turn voters, are to notice.

The cabinet needs renewal, too, if voters are to notice brand refreshment. Clark’s post-election reshuffle was work-in-progress. To complete that task, she will need to promote new, younger ministers to the front rank and give them heaps of exposure. Obvious candidates are 40-somethings David Cunliffe and David Parker.

And they happen to be in portfolios where they could generate an aura of “vision” to help refresh the brand.

Cunliffe’s immigration portfolio could be expanded into a “who do we want to be” strategy which would recognise the world is now demographically fluid and huge numbers change countries each year. Immigration is not just filling jobs. It is an element in the nation’s strategic future.

Parker has climate change and energy, two mutually reinforcing items of great importance, on which public opinion is changing in what Labour might claim is its direction. A bold Clark cabinet could generate a sense of purpose and even adventure.

But Clark and her cabinets have been much more attuned to busy-ness than adventure. In the year since Clark formed her third government, the cabinet has fussed over a lot of detail or, worse, been lost in the fog of war over Phillip Field and election spending.

Much of a recent meeting of front-bench ministers and public sector CEOs, for example, was on tax. Tax can be strategic in the hands of an economic theorist but in the hands of this third-term cabinet tax is essentially about the tactics of “triangulating” National so Key can offer only limp cuts in 2008.

Yet ministers insist they recognise the branding opportunity in climate change. The block is Clark’s (and Heather Simpson’s) supercaution.

Will Clark’s hunger for a fourth term overcome this political timorousness? A major test will be Parker’s energy strategy, due next month.

More immediately, if you want a tiny symbol of a will to “rejuvenate”, watch young Sutton’s election bid this Sunday. None other than Margaret Wilson, formidable 1970s and 1980s status-quo-buster, is backing her.

Sutton herself is not important. What she signals for the brand might be.