Labour's nightmare: nine long years in limbo

Nine long years. That is how an opposition party sees a three-term government. Nine years of impotence.

Labour endured it from 1990 to 1999, National from 1999 to 2008 and Labour right now might be staring at another turn. That gives its conference in Rotorua next weekend poignancy: how to quickly make a credible government-in-waiting.

For now Labour watches frustrated as John Key effortlessly woos crowds and individuals across the political spectrum and he and his party bask in warm poll ratings, with two suppliers of a majority to pick from.

Labour MPs in vain point out the gross broken promise of tax cuts, rising unemployment, cuts to public service staffs and many taxpayer-funded programmes and the slide away from “sustainability” which it thought — after Helen Clark’s speech at the Rotorua conference three years ago — aligned it with a generational change of priorities, that is, with the future.

The new MPs set up a lively, readable and energetic blog, Red Alert, which has given some oldie MPs, too, a new lease of life, has attracted blogosphere dwellers and is scanned by political journalists.

Top MPs are doing their damnedest to get traction.

Leader Phil Goff took his MPs on a gimmicky bus tour to “reconnect” and earned media derision. He has at times pushed too hard and run into blowback.

Shadow finance minister David Cunliffe has his inquiry into the banks, which has thrown up some matters of interest, including Canberra’s worry that Australian banks’ large exposure to New Zealand debtors is a potential risk to the Australia’s banking system.

Charles Chauvel, a 2006 MP, is organising rafts of members bills.

All this activity is behind a veil where few but the faithful can see it. The value of Cunliffe’s inquiry, for example, is feed-in to Labour’s policy rebuild, not points on the board right now. As with all new oppositions after nine short years in government, Labour is not (yet) winning converts.

So Paula Bennett can make gaffes, some serious, and Key can rely on the public seeing them as endearing. Some National ministers head down byways and Key contrives both to endorse and moderate them. Rodney Hide can do his radical thing and Key blandly blends it into his middlling manner.

So his government is not seen (yet) as disunited or unorganised. Key lives in a unique political cocoon. A combination of his formidable personal charm and an unspoken public comprehension that the easy-money years are over and now it is time for drawback has given him and his cabinet huge leeway to cut programmes (which it is doing modestly) and be bold (it has not so far).

Behind the Key veil Labour has riskless room to redevelop as the party of imagination, enterprise and risk — if it wants to and has the wit to.

Does it want to and does it have the wit to?

Yes — and no. It depends where you look.

The party’s policy committee, refashioned by Phil Twyford, now an MP, and reinvigorated with new members, has generated a number of discussion papers for the workshops which will be the main conference focus.

There are numerous caucus committees and subcommittees, with links to people in the wider party, academics, businesspeople, non-government organisations and unions. There will be bucketloads of policy ideas, not least in Cunliffe’s economic brief.

Goff and King are said by their MPs to be encouraging wide-ranging trolling for ideas. King heads the policy committee and is not blocking off input from its non-MP majority and debate — a change from 12 years of tight control by Clark.

But there is a time limit on this thinking. A year from now the focus will be the 2011 election, not long-range policy.

And then it will be a numbers game. Labour had a miserable night last November: booted out of all provincial electorate seats but Palmerston North and ejected in a swag of suburban seats. The “enrolled non-vote” strategy which rescued a number of lower-income seats in 2005 didn’t work. Labour’s old core vote, wage-worker men, and many very-low-income people did not vote. The “nanny state” — the smacking law in particular — was a major factor.

So Labour plunged to 34 per cent, well below the 38 per cent minimum it needed to bid to be the government after the election.

Goff’s job is to win if he can in 2011. More realistically, his job is to get Labour back up to 38 per cent to provide a platform for 2014. For that he needs more party members (numbers are not too bad after a defeat but need rebuilding — new secretary Chris Flatt, a union organiser, will be tested on that score), money (curiously, Mike Williams’ skills have been pensioned off with a gold badge) and morale (helped by the Mt Albert win but in need of nurture, which is Goff’s job).

Members, money and morale don’t come by way of gimmicks. Goff has to play the long game and hope opportunity opens up. His good news is that he has a bright bunch of new MPs and a party generally in good shape. How good a shape we will see next weekend.