Modernising Labour if it loses

A cloud will hang over the Labour party’s pre-election “congress” this month, the thickening cloud of election defeat. But, if the worst comes to the worst, there is a silver lining.

The rule of thumb in Westminster democracies such as ours is that after a long period in office a party goes into deep decline. The Liberals in Canada have. The Australian Liberals did in the states and now have federally. The British Tories are only just emerging from their whiteout under Tony Blair.

Here the National party needed two defeats after its 1990-99 time in office before it began to look like a real fighting force.

The good news for Labour is that it might regenerate quickly if it loses this year and thus avoid a post-Helen Clark disintegration and demoralisation.

The bad news is immediate: continuing failures of political management, continuing bad polls and a public rapidly going deaf to its ministers’ protestations that they are producing programmes and projects of “substance”.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to conceive of scenarios that give Clark a fourth term, whether by beating National or by getting close enough so that the mercurial arithmetic of MMP overcomes the losing margin.

It is becoming less difficult to write a scenario that drops Labour’s vote to the low-30s or lower, reminiscent of National’s 2002 debacle when centrist voters, concluding Labour would be the government, deserted in droves to New Zealand First and United Future to provide a brake on Labour.

A very low vote for Labour’s this year would slow regeneration because the newer candidates, on which regeneration will depend, will be lower on the list and therefore less likely to be elected.

But let’s say Labour manages 35 per cent or more. By early March 12 MPs had either already left or said they will not stand again and two more, Russell Fairbrother in Napier and Mark Burton in Taupo, both in eminently losable seats, had decided not to go on the list.

So, of 44 or so MPs 35 per cent of the vote would deliver, at least seven would be new. At 38 per cent, the 1999 score, at least 10 would be.

There could well be more. A losing Clark would probably quickly vacate the leadership and maybe Parliament. Others might not relish opposition.

And a number of the likely new arrivals are promising. Star among them is Wellington Central candidate Grant Robertson, an alumnus of Clark’s office, 36, highly intelligent with a well-rounded grasp of politics and issues. Chris Hipkins, though young at 29, is highly spoken of. Stuart Nash comes with multiple degrees and a background in business consultancy. Clare Curran has written some useful positioning papers.

Put them under a sparky Phil Goff leadership (with Annette King?) and, after the 18 months or so when John Key will blanket out the media, as Kevin Rudd is doing in Australia, there are the makings of a vigorous opposition that could position itself well by 2011.

Shane Jones and Maryann Street will be likely to make a mark and 40-somethings David Parker, David Cunliffe and Clayton Cosgrove will have enough ministerial experience to fill out a heavier-weight front bench than National could after 1999.

But MPs are not the whole story. Labour has depth.

One of National’s underlying strengths since Key took over is the return of the constructive tension between its liberal and conservative tendencies which gave it great strength as the dominant party in the 1950s and 1960s but has been distorted by populism and radicalism most of the time since then.

Labour in recent times has not had such a constructive internal tension.

But at its conference last year Labour boasted both a large number of new, younger delegates and an ability to constructively debate issues that once would have been off-limits. Notable was a discussion of whether God votes socialist. Christians are OK again in the party, no longer demonised as reactionary or worse.

This presaged the debate that is likely in the event of defeat (and even victory), counterposing a modernised social democratic tendency to the present dominant liberal tendency.

That is, there is a fair chance Labour out of office will develop the sort of constructive tension between major tendencies that will invigorate its thinking and policy.

And that is likely to be led by 40-somethings and 30-somethings — that is, the children of the post-Vietnam, post-apartheid, post-deregulation era. Labour could be “modern” again.