Some signposts for Labour's road back

Norman Kirk lost weight, got a decent suit and better hair and won in 1972. David Lange had his stomach stapled to statesman size and won in 1984. Helen Clark got swept-up hair, designer clothes and makeup and won in 1999. Grant Robertson has been measured for a new suit.

Robertson is the fulcrum in Labour’s transition from the post-1980s era to the pre-2020s one. That involves Labour looking and being fresh in face and policy and a generational transition.

David Cunliffe is (just) post-baby-boom and he and Nanaia Mahuta were ministers in Clark’s government. Cunliffe is highly intelligent, articulate and quick but grates with some MPs and party members, which poses a risk of disunity.

David Shearer is baby-boom (54) but fresh, so fresh that he is politically vulnerable — but anti-Beehive feeling in some parts of the public, in part reflected in the high non-vote, might welcome that. He and Grant Robertson, who at 40 is 10 years clear of the baby boom, have not been ministers (though were once respectively in Phil Goff’s and Clark’s back rooms).

Ironically, if the election had been next November after a four-year term this contest might have been six months ago because the election would not have been looming and so influencing MPs’ calculations. Also, a year from now some gloss might have come off National.

As it was, anecdotal evidence and the numbers suggest many Labour-friendly voters last month figured Labour couldn’t win and voted Green or New Zealand First.

Labour’s 34 per cent 2008 party vote slid to 27 per cent. But its electorate seat vote was 35 per cent, 8 percentage points higher.

Go back to 2002: National’s electorate seat vote was 31 per cent, 10 percentage points above its 21 per cent party vote. Numerous National-friendly voters concluded National couldn’t win and voted New Zealand First or United Future.

National thus started its post-2002 rebuild from the low-30s. Labour starts its rebuild from the mid-30s, not the upper-20s.

Moreover, Labour met its core objective: to stabilise its base vote. The three heavily Labour electorates in south Auckland swung 4 1/2 per cent to Labour on the party vote against a nationwide average 7 per cent swing to National. Goff’s multicultural Roskill swung a bit over 1 per cent to Labour. Three west Auckland electorates swung only a little over 1 per cent to National.

This reflects a bigger Labour presence on the ground and less core vote turnoff than in 2008. Labour is less dissociated from its voter base than some think.

Labour can build on that. If National falters and/or Labour springs something that gets attention, Labour could be polling in the mid-upper-30s by mid-2014.

National’s game-changer post-2002 was the foreshore and seabed court ruling, exploited by “barbie on the beach” billboards under Bill English then Don Brash’s “one nation” speech in January 2004 which galvanised conservative white opinion and restored party confidence. Under English National also rewrote its constitution, greatly improving its organisation.

Labour can’t count on a foreshore/seabed match, though the global uncertainties might generate one. But under low-profile president Moira Coatsworth the party is set to refashion its organisation — the rank-and-file meet-the-leader-candidate meetings are a curtain-raiser. And a new leader might generate a “look-at-me” response.

But to be convincing, Labour will need retirements, fresh faces, a root-and-branch candidate makeover in 2014, plausible unity, a first-principles policy rethink so it looks like a government of the future and a practical working relationship with the Greens.

Take the last first. The next Labour-led government, whenever that is, will be Labour-Green. There is now a de facto coalition-in-waiting — Labour-Green, with a very short hyphen. The Greens are well established, even if they drop to 7 per cent next time. In Robertson’s Wellington Central their party vote was very close to Labour’s.

At the grassroots the two parties get on. At leader level the relationship has been formal rather than warm. That is a hangover from Clark’s fear of being branded extreme by association. With only Peters in the middle — if that is where he is — Labour’s new leadership will not have that luxury. Anyway, the Greens have worked at looking less extreme.

Labour did start future-focusing its policy last term — notable contributors were the two Davids plus David Parker, Charles Chauvel and Stuart Nash — though muddied it with some 1970s throwbacks. The next challenge, to push the focus out to the 2020s, is for the 40-and-under cohort: the Robertsons, Jacinda Arderns and Chris Hipkinses.

It is the deputy’s job to organise policy development. Robertson is readier than Mahuta to do this imaginatively and collegially.

Robertson is more than just a shadow behind Shearer. His role in this contest points (whoever wins on Tuesday) towards him as eventual leader, with Ardern as deputy — after his makeover.