The old guard goes. Now for new ideas

Helen Clark is shipping out to work for Ban Ki-moon. Michael Cullen is shipping out to work for Simon Power. Labour is in transition.

In her valedictory speech on Wednesday, Clark highlighted this generational shift. She went to university at a time when “the baby-boomer generation came of age”. The Vietnam war, the nuclear debate and apartheid were “faultlines” running through our politics, “some ideological and some generational”.

When her generation came to power in politics in 1984 it made an earthquake along those faultlines. Our society and economy changed.

The post-baby-boomers now poised to take over the party came to their politics when the aftershocks were weakening or had stopped. They have a different window on the world.

And they need that if they are to regain power. Clark talked in her valedictory of the crushing defeat in 1990 after the post-1984 government shattered the worker base’s faith in Labour. She became determined to “keep faith with the loyal, long-term Labour supporters”. In fact last year the worker base frayed after years of social-moral legislation which Clark acknowledged was “ahead of the times”. Labour scored 1 per cent less in 2008 than in 1990.

That sets the next generation’s challenge: to rebuild a “loyal, long-term” voting base strong enough to underpin a sixth Labour government.

That needs not just adherence to Labour’s enduring “values”, which Clark characterised as “fairness, opportunity and security”. It needs new ideas.

Clark was always coy in interviews on ideas, as if they were viruses that could mutate into forms dangerous to her body politic. She focused on projects aimed at meeting need or aspiration and over time compiled long lists of projects started or completed. Steve Maharey, who read up and revelled in new ideas got into periodic trouble for doing his thinking aloud.

Michael Cullen had ideas by the truckload but mostly pretended to outsiders he didn’t. He still has plenty but swears he won’t write them down in a book. For a simple journalist to squeeze some of super-bright, express-train-brain Cullen’s ideas out of him was a work of patience and, on his part, weary condescension (or so it felt).

A pity: when on rare occasions he accepted the challenge of deep analysis and forward projection he was arguably the deepest-thinking politician of recent decades. (Simon Upton would be next.)

Cullen hid his thoughtful depth behind biting wit. He could do a 20-minute speech without notes that was a belly-laugh a minute. But spoken wit was no substitute for spoken ideas.

Now Labour needs ideas — next-generation ideas. Phil Goff and Annette King are baby-boomers. That doesn’t rule out Labour thinking up next-generation ideas to put modern flesh on the core values on their watch. But at some point Labour will need next-generation leaders, too.

Why the next generation? For two reasons.

First, the world is changing. The debt-fuelled growth that generated many of Clark’s valedictory speech statistics won’t come back fast, if at all. The world has to fix the debt imbalances. The result will be a changed social and economic order. Policy and institutions will reflect that changed order.

Second, at home John Key thinks and operates differently. He might succeed in blocking Labour from reconnecting with those of its base supporters who deserted at the election or sat it out. And National’s up-and-comers are next-generation ministers and MPs — mostly bright, well-educated and flexible in their thinking and determined to avoid the baby-boomers’ mistakes, real and imagined.

Key and Co have foreign examples and local energy to draw on. There is high-level cabinet interest, for example, in the work of Geoff Mulgan, former Tony Blair director of policy, in social innovation, that is, the design and implementation of better ways of meeting social need. And the cabinet has the advantage over Labour of being able to put new ideas to work if it wants to.

Can Labour make a hundred flowers bloom? It has the brains and the energy inside the caucus and at large in the party. A front-runner for the party secretary’s job is mid-thirties and so likely to foster new debate. And the annual summer school and Drinking Liberally forums are places to do that.

Who can tend the hundred flowers? New MPs Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins, Phil Twyford, Clare Curran, Stuart Nash and Kelvin Davis have the training and the inclination. Among the pre-2008 risers watch Charles Chauvel, a sharp intellect now shadowing climate change.

If they grow the hundred flowers, can Labour capture the ideas in policy and institutional design which trump National’s?

We can’t know the answer. But the rapid shipping out of a dominant, sometimes domineering leader and her brilliant No 2 cabinet manager opens up more space for durable new thinking than is common after a long spell in office.

That is the Easter bunny gift from two very un-Easter-bunny, soon-to-be-ex politicians.