The transition waiting after Labour's leader vote

John Key likes to sneer that a Labour-led government would be “far left”. Yes, from his perspective, driving rightwards with energetic deregulation. But is it a true perspective?

At the first Labour leadership candidate hui at Levin on Saturday Grant Robertson encapsulated a potential counterattack to Key by ascribing to 1972-74 Prime Minister Norman Kirk a well-worn jingle summing mainstreamers’ wishes from life: somewhere to work, somewhere to live, someone to love and something to hope for.

This adds up to security: expectation of a decent, even if modest, living standard and life. Through most of last century, including National’s high point in the 1950s and 1960s when it governed for 17 of the 20 years, that was the ambition and, for most, the reality.

Since the freedom generation — the baby-boomers — got going in the mid-1980s security has been an add-on.

In different ways all three Labour leader candidates are promising to tack back towards security. That resonated with party members at Levin. v Baby-boomer Shane Jones orated — magnificently and resonantly at times, fitting for a Maori on a Roopu Reipa (Labour party) “marae”.

Older-X-generation David Cunliffe scanned policy points centred on fairness. His resonant line was “mind the gap” (between the too-well-off and the too-poorly-off, not between the platform and London tube train).

Younger-X-generation Robertson got the warmest vibes, with a mix of tradition, modernity and self-mockery. Declaiming Labour as better than National “pound for pound” (a pre-Kirk saying), he added that “some of us contribute more pounds than others”, a reference to his losing battle to trim down.

Kirk had the same problem. In 1966 columnist Peter Scherer wrote of him: “grey-templed and fleshy-visaged, with the mien of a jowelled cherub and build of an out-of-training wrestler, he has the ponderous gait which befits his 20 stone”.

For Kirk’s third campaign as leader in 1972 Bob Harvey got him trimmed down, properly suited, with haircut to match. He looked like a Prime Minister. Robertson has a way to go. Cunliffe looks it now. Jones on his best days is the nearest ever to a Maori prime ministerial candidate, Winston Peters included.

Does Kirk’s three-goes analogy hold in this age of instant gratification? Helen Clark got two goes but Bill English, Don Brash and Phil Goff all just one and David Shearer none.

The risk for Labour is that whoever wins now will be a one-shot-and-down leader. That in part turns the focus on the post-September 15 caucus election of the deputy (about which more in a future column).

Meantime, note another Kirk analogy.

Both Jones and Robertson nominated Kirk as their inspiration. Cunliffe nominated Michael Joseph Savage, arguing a parallel between Savage’s path to prosperity with innovative policy, climbing out of the 1930s depression, and Cunliffe’s own intention to do the same as we edge out of recession.

But Savage was a sainted soother not an in-command boss. Deputy Prime Minister Peter Fraser was the real driver, backed by Finance Minister Walter Nash. Kirk was an in-command Prime Minister, even if ephemerally, for just 21 months.

More relevant to this month’s contest, Kirk was a transitional leader, a pivot between the old “labour” party of the “worker” and an over-the-horizon independent and bicultural nation which he sensed and, in some remarkable speeches, anticipated.

Of the three candidates, Robertson, at 41, is the nearest to a pivot.

Labour can be seen as a party of six tendencies: an old left, wanting the 1970s back; ageing 1970s social liberals; 1980s-type “identity” politicos pushing the special interests of women (hence the “man ban”), gays, ethnic minorities, the disabled); the 1990s “third-wayers” who tried to accommodate Labour to market-liberalism; the Maori dimension; and those groping for a way to apply Labour principles to the 2020s.

These tendencies are not mutually exclusive. For example, some younger Labourites identify with the old left and some older sorts are sprightly thinkers. The future lies with the 2020s tendency.

For Labour the deep issue is less to win in 2014 — of course, the focal priority for now — than to build a policy base than can capture something like the vote National has and hold on to it. Labour+Greens is a coalition, not a party, and the Greens often sound 1980s-ish, despite Russel Norman’s smart repositioning.

Labour’s 2020s imperative points to the likes of David Clark and Jacinda Ardern — in due course. That transition is the unspoken and little recognised subtext of the leadership contest.

Personalities count. That is why Shearer went. But policy settings matter more for the longer term and for durable firm support. And to win enduring support, those settings must resonate with mainstreamers — as security once did, then freedom.

In that context “left” and “right” would become marginal adjustments, not divisive labels. As National in its 1950s-60s heyday knew.