The light on Labour's hill is a long climb away

Labour has a leader. Now what? There is a long hill to climb. Each of the three contenders described part of that hillclimb in their pitches for the job.

First there is the foothill, the 2014 election. Labour excited its troops by trumpeting that they were electing “the next Prime Minister” and the candidates joined that chorus. But actually, there is a fair chance the next Prime Minister will be a National MP — if John Key wins a third term, then moves on.

A third term is not a sure bet. The economy, while chugging along, is lopsided and too many are on the downside. National has yet to recruit enough minor-party support. Key, while still appealing widely, has satisfaction ratings around Helen Clark’s in her third term. A trickle of moderate conservatives is turning off him, and so off National, for reasons ranging his shock jock style to his bypassing of due process (most recently the Chorus slinter).

Add to that an opponent, David Cunliffe, who can project to voters, as Phil Goff and David Shearer could not, who can exploit the government’s tender points and who, in doing that, can re-establish Labour in the media and in public as the undisputed main opposition party.

Then close Labour’s fissures, as the open leadership contest has done for now (a process National, fearful of open debate within its ranks, doesn’t dare). Caucus pre-election closing of ranks is likely — assured if Grant Robertson is kept on as deputy leader — and, with that, rank and file confidence and activity.

So billing Cunliffe as next Prime Minister is not far-fetched. Clark’s longsighted vision for him, from when he was a rising young free-trader on the party’s right, would then be vindicated.

And as Prime Minister he would get things done. Some officials remember him with a shudder. But he addressed the long-festering telecommunications regulatory ripoff and made a start on health services. He is intellectually smart and managerial. And, while he can be oleaginous, as in some of his leadership campaign interviews, he can also be disarmingly charming.

But Cunliffe’s transit from right to “red” — his word — has left a trail of questions which Key, with help from National’s destructive Australian political consultants, will aim to exploit. The odds still lie marginally with National. That could trigger a post-2014-election leadership round.

Even if Cunliffe is Prime Minister, Labour still has a long way to climb from the election foothill up to the over-40 per cent uplands it once occupied after most elections. Other social democratic parties in our sorts of countries have the same challenge. That says Labour’s base support issue is systemic, not fixable just by a spell or two in office.

Shane Jones talked of Labour’s “lost tribe”: those in income bands logically Labour who did not enrol to vote or, if enrolled, did not vote. They have been a focus of Labour electoral managers like Mike Williams for a decade. Getting enough of them out in 2005 got Clark her third term. Not getting enough was a factor in Labour’s 2008-11 low votes.

Long ago, unions attached “working people” to Labour. Now the lower socioeconomic strata are atomised, no longer the “tribe” of Jones’s memory. There are also ethnic and other diversities.

And Labour’s top brass now is not “one-of-us” among these voting fragments. The top brass is mostly of the educational meritocracy which emerged in numbers in the 1960s — some is second- or third-generation, that is, from a privileged stratum, a new ruling caste.

Question: How does Labour become “one-of-us” with its logical voters?

Cunliffe had a promising answer: a “fair go”, a phrase which has all-but-disappeared from our political lexicon. It used to pitch to a wide swathe of society: from a fair go to do what we want (our individualism) across to a fair go for a real chance in life (education, health care and social security).

Question: How does Labour remake itself as the party of the fair go, not just for now but for the 2020s?

Robertson pitched himself as the 2020s answer: the “next-generation” leader.

There is a generational shift in our politics — not from the baby-boomers to Xs/Ys, as I used to think, but from the baby-boom/older-Xs (Cunliffe is older-X) to the younger-Xs/Ys. Robertson is younger X — free from Labour’s desperate “third way” attempt to adapt to, and adapt, free-market economics.

In 2017 younger-X and below will be a majority of the voting age population. If Labour can click into these people and hold on, it could be more often the government next decade.

Cunliffe and David Parker have been rethinking economic policy but there is more to do to move past reactive to constructive. There is little real sign yet of rethought social policy, though Jacinda Ardern and other Ys insist they are working on it.

So, question: How does Labour reframe its principles for the 2020s?

These are big escarpments on Labour’s long uphill climb. Cunliffe’s election was at most a start.