Clark's steep climb ahead for her coveted fourth term

Tomorrow the cabinet meets for the first time this election year, fresh not from its holidaying but from a swag of own goals in 2007. Two weeks hence the Labour caucus will mull over a strategy to win a fourth term. The contrast with the opening month of the three most recent election years is stark.

In each of those years Labour came off large December poll leads, 15 per cent average against Jenny Shipley’s fraying government in 1999 and 11-12 per cent over the National oppositions of Bill English and Don Brash in 2002 and 2005.

This election-year Labour comes off a December average 15 per cent deficit to National, the mirror-image of 1999. And the strong economic tailwinds of 2002 and 2005 have turned round into a light but freshening headwind.

By Christmas the cabinet was looking as frayed as Shipley’s at the end of 1998. The long pre-Christmas cabinet meeting told the story of the need for corrective action: after it Trevor Mallard swiftly apologised for his disgraceful role in the Erin Leigh affair, then ducked from sight for a full month, and Michael Cullen pronounced himself a tax-cutter.

Restoring discipline to political management is a critical part of Labour’s strategy for a fourth term. Expect Helen Clark, whose eye was too often off the ball in 2007, most damagingly over the Electoral Finance Bill, to keep closer watch on the home scene in 2008.

“Triangulating” tax cuts — reducing the scope for National credibly to promise more — is a second element in the strategy. Personal tax was a big, and nearly losing, negative in 2005. Even the low-wage Service and Food Workers Union has told ministers tax cuts are high on its activists’ wishlist.

So Clark will squeeze Cullen’s surplus hard. Expect a programme of personal tax cuts, the first logically coming on October 1 in time for the election.

A third dimension of the strategy for a fourth term is to be “relentlessly positive” at prime ministerial level.

There is scope for that.

First, “heritage”: those elements of military legacy, history, heroism (the Hillary syndrome) and arts, crafts and culture which are sacred to this emerging nation and those which identify it. (The Royals’ no-show at the funeral today marks them as more foreign than family.) Clark has made that a theme of her prime ministership.

Next, foreign affairs: Clark has made the most of opportunities to near-normalise the relationship with the United States to the point where the logic is strong for a low-key ship visit, though none is yet planned; she will soon sign a world-first free(-ish) trade agreement with China by a developed economy — though, illustrating her decaying luck, it comes as world criticism mounts of China’s environmental damage, unsafe and even lethal exports and role in unbalancing the world economy.

Then add action on climate change: very late — this country has so far been a slow follower — but now with push.

Climate change is foremost in the third element of the strategy: to claim Labour is the party of the future. But that is a hard case to make, given the deforestation, huge increase in transport emissions and falling share of renewable electricity in its first six years.

Labour will try also to claim innovation, education and social services and savings initiatives as signposts to the future. But there are as many negatives as positives, arguably more. And KiwiSaver started just as asset prices began to crumble so at election time most KiwiSavers won’t be ecstatic.

The fourth element of the strategy is to try to get voters to mark John Key as not ready and to wonder what he stands for. For Clark to be “relentlessly positive” she has to leave that to Cullen, Mallard and Phil Goff.

Whether they succeed will depend on whether voters are hearing Labour any more, how well Key learns and whether English can lift last year’s sluggish policy pace. It will also depend on an end to own goals by Cullen, who loses his cool over Key, and Mallard.

The fifth element of the strategy is feet on the ground. By contrast with the cabinet decay, Labour has grassroots vigour which its bosses think can dig out a hidden vote of maybe 1-2 per cent among the poor and disadvantaged. It got some of those votes out in 2005 and will pursue them more systematically in 2008.

Add it up and stir in that Clark is a proven Prime Minister: Labour bosses see scope for optimism as their year opens. Clark argues, too, that Labour has held its core 1999 vote of 38.7 per cent in polls. That, she says, is a firm launchpad for a fourth term bid.

Actually Labour’s poll support averaged just over 37 per cent in 2007. And it ended the year going down, not up.

You can’t rule Clark out: she will fight to the end. But not since 1996’s 22 per cent starting deficit has her climb ahead been so steep.

* Last week I said the British, Australian and New Zealand Treasury chiefs were to meet this week. The meeting has since been cancelled, in part because of world economic turbulence.