Look left then right then left again

Left columnist Chris Trotter was invited to lead a “new thinking” workshop on “the media” at the Labour party conference starting on Friday. Had he not pulled out, this would have complemented his paper in January at the party’s summer school for new thinking, where he led a chorus of the socialist marching hymn, the “Red Flag”.

What is going on?

A year or two back Trotter was a bete noire in Labour circles, a commentator who, senior ministers would resignedly or dismissively say, told it like it wasn’t about Labour and was grist to Don Brash’s mill.

Trotter departed Labour with Jim Anderton in 1989 into NewLabour which formed the Alliance in 1992. He was close to the Laila Harre-led faction in the 2001-02 schism which resulted in the Alliance’s exit from Parliament but left Anderton, though in the minority (one hesitates to say Menshevik) faction, still a senior minister.

Anderton is now near indistinguishable from his Labour colleagues, having adjusted to globalisation, the base reason for the 1989 dustup. Officials extol him as a minister with driving energy, an enthusiast and battler in the cabinet for his portfolio sector and tough-minded on hard calls.

Harre has since become one of the country’s most effective and innovative organising unionists, kosher in Council of Trade Unions circles. And now Trotter is made official by Labour officialdom.

So some sort of peace has been made with the NewLabour (actually old Labour) part of Labour’s 1980s-90s diaspora.

Now the forces on Labour’s radical flank are the Greens (once anachronistically part of the Alliance and containing once-Labour Keith Locke) and the Maori party, successor to Mana Motuhake (also once part of the Alliance).

The Greens proclaim themselves the vanguard of a new order (as socialists once did). The Maori party proclaims self-determination for iwi and hapu.

Both siphon off votes that once belonged to Labour. Both are on most matters closer to Labour than National. Both feel aggrieved at Helen Clark’s attentiveness to the centre and centre-right.

Over the next year, if Clark is get a fourth term, she has to manufacture a new matrix.

New Zealand First and United Future will link with National if it gets enough votes in 2008.

Peter Dunne needs to do that at some point to stop National knocking him out in his electorate.

Winston Peters will initially talk to the party with the most votes. But with Labour he can get only mainly Labour-ish New Zealand First policy preferences acted on and he could do with action on his party’s conservative preferences (which, deputy leader Peter Brown has flagged, may mean full coalition).

Do the count. ACT and United Future will have maybe four seats between them. The Greens and the Maori party will have maybe nine to 12 seats between them. So Labour has the advantage if there is a tight election and if New Zealand First doesn’t get 5 per cent — though Clark would still need to convince the Green and Maori parties they would get more from her than from specific policy deals with John Key.

If New Zealand First is in Parliament, it will have six or more seats available to National if National gets most votes. Moreover ACT, the only party on National’s radical flank, would, being tiny, be less of a coalition barrier to Peters than the Greens and the Maori party.

Will New Zealand First get back? It has cash in hand, even after paying back the Auditor-General’s blood money and delegates at the conference were in good cheer, even if short of under-60s.

Peters has had a passable press as Foreign Minister. Campaign planning looks likely to be sharper than the 2005 muddle and Peters is sharpening the message: constraint on Labour/National “extremes” and “one people” versus “separatism” and too many migrants.

At the conference he attacked the Maori party as “based on race” and attacked “soft-headed liberals” for over-castigating Trevor Mallard. (New Zealand Firsters know Tau Henare’s style — he was deputy leader once.)

Peters’ dualism plus the minor parties’ strength on Clark’s flank set her a poser. To maximise her options for next year she has to be credibly able to assemble a “left” grouping while also holding the centre so voters don’t cross the divide wholesale.

At Friday’s conference opening Mike Williams will labour the policy differences with National to make the “progressive” point (Labour’s code word for “left”). It will be up to Clark to lay down a forward-pointing differentiating marker. Her “sustainability” theme is “progressive” but it is an unsaleable word and the big bounce for that idea was at last year’s conference.

Her cabinet reshuffle is aimed primarily at the centre: the message is renewal (Williams will highlight the 10-12 new candidates to replace retiring MPs) plus competence: “stick with the manager you know”.

Which sums up the conference’s conundrum. The “new thinkers” want to stay in power and know that means winning the centre. But at heart they are “progressives”.