Can Key's National tune in with the iPod generation?

A great strength of Helen Clark’s cabinet has been its friendships. Ministers argue a lot, particularly recently and particularly over energy and climate change. But they are, most of them, not only political friends but also personal friends.

You can’t say that of the present National shadow cabinet. John Key, Bill English and Co have work to do.

Of course, there are outliers in Clark’s ministry, those who have been at odds with the social policy line. They represent a strand of opinion. But they are not a powerful disunifying faction.

Labour shattered in the Lange-Douglas free-market 1980s. In the 1996 election it supplied the leaders of three successful parties besides itself. Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne in today’s ministry are ghosts of that diaspora.

But most of those who formed Labour’s shadow cabinet after the 1996 election became friends. They broadly shared a political philosophy. They liked each other, spent non-work time with each other.

The wider party is also these days a friendly place. Policy differences are contained within a generally comradely frame.

Friendship has been one underpinning of Labour’s success in three elections. But 50-going-on-60-somethings are not the future. The challenge for Clark going past her seventh anniversary in power is to begin a transfer of power to rising 40-somethings, whose friendships and formative experiences are from a different era.

That is, Labour must make the transition from walking with the Walkman generation to tuning in with the iPod generation.

Actually, National, with 40-somethings Key and English at the top, has the inside running on that transition. Younger New Zealand does not remember the heavily regulated, racially homogeneous country Labour’s top brass grew up in.

Don Brash was from the 45rpm vinyl era. He was also keen to advance Ruth Richardson’s early 1990s radical reform agenda. A number of other senior National MPs are parked in the same siding.

That radical episode was the second of National’s two departures from tradition in the last quarter of last century. The first was Sir Robert Muldoon’s descent into populism which did serious damage to Labour’s conservative wage-worker base but even more serious damage to his own party.

Since Richardson National has threshed through four leaders’ careers trying to recalibrate its compass, from Jim Bolger’s implausible “decent society” through Jenny Shipley’s reassertion of “National blue” over “coalition grey” and Bill English’s premature, floundering new conservatism to Brash’s divisive “iwi-Kiwi”.

“Iwi-Kiwi” produced the temporary bounce in the polls which restored National’s belief in itself after its awful 21 per cent in 2002 (in truth, the cruel result of defensive tactical voting to constrain the inevitable Labour government — the real score was probably the 31 per cent it got in the electorate vote but that was no gain on 1999).

The Brash bounce got back membership and money and self-respect. It sucked tactical 2002 AWOLs back from New Zealand First and United Future and radical votes out of ACT.

But 45rpm vinyl is not even Walkman, let alone iPod. For that National has needed a Key, ready or not, even if more “not” than “ready”, and an English, even an English scarred by 2002.

It also needs them in concert. It needs them to be friends. First, political friends. Then, if possible, actual friends.

They are neither. They’ve only just given up being edgy rivals.

But recall that Michael Cullen was prominent in an abortive challenge to Helen Clark in mid-1996 and became an exemplary deputy. English, who from Friday blended bloody-minded toughness with conciliation in his negotiations over the weekend, is capable of doing the same. It helps that Key has always wanted English as deputy and switched to Brownlee only because he thought English wouldn’t play.

English is Key’s other half — thoughtful, intellectual, a party man, an instinctive doubter of marketing fizz and quick-fixers.

Since his humiliation in 2002 he has remade himself, recovered his self-belief and earned many plaudits from the party rank-and-file.

He is National’s powerhouse debater in the House. He has rethought an individualistic but also socially aware conservatism. As policy coordinator, he has tried to get MPs to rethink policy through discussion papers (only one so far).

And he has experience of front-bench friendship as one of Jenny Shipley’s 1997-99 “brat pack” with Tony Ryall, Nick Smith and Roger Sowry.

Four wasn’t enough. National since 1999 has been fractious. Brash’s hard line on Maori and welfare lost him Georgina te Heuheu and Katherine Rich.

Key needs better if he is to set up a long-run cabinet of the Clark ilk. He needs not just the operational unity that automatically follows yesterday’s vote but a unity of political and actual friends.

Force of personality can work wonders, as Tony Blair has shown. Better is a real team. That is why he and English now have to be friends. Real friends.