Even if National loses Labour might not really win

Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, the old saying goes. Is it true? Is it true in 2014?

There isn’t yet enough wrong for the government to lose. Though National has support-partner issues, it has strong poll ratings, jobs and wages are rising, consumer and business confidence is high and big majorities tell pollsters the country is on the right track.

If those conditions mostly last till the campaign, Labour has to earn a win.

In the years after 1945 governments did lose elections: Labour after 14 years in 1949, National after a late change of Prime Minister in 1957, Labour in 1960 after taxing tobacco, alcohol and petrol hard.

But in 1969 Sir Keith Holyoake’s loss-prone third-term government hung on in a tight race. Labour blamed a shipping union dispute but actually was still in transition from 1930s-50s has-beens to a modernising new breed and leader Norman Kirk wasn’t ready.

By 1972 Kirk had had a makeover. The modernisers were on top. Labour won in a landslide. The landslide suggests Labour won more than, or at least as much as, National lost. In 1975, Kirk having died and amid the stress of the post-1973-oil-shock recession, Labour lost. But National also won: it got a landslide. A factor was its transition to a popular populist leader, Sir Robert Muldoon.

In 1978 and 1981 National lost on votes to Labour but got more seats and stayed in power. Labour wasn’t ready: it had leadership issues and was again in transition, to its up-and-coming baby-boomer cohort, the “B team”. By 1984 the “B team” had up-and-come. Labour won in a landslide.

In 1990 Labour was wracked by infighting, had twice changed Prime Minister, had lost its voter base and was stranded in a recession. It unmistakably lost the election. But National also won it, with 48 per cent. It had made a transition, to market economics, epitomised in a knife-edge caucus majority for the Reserve Bank Act in 1989. In effect Labour passed the baton to the next runner on the same deregulatory track.

National fell 13 percentage points in 1993, in effect a loss. But Labour was divided. In 1996 Labour was still unready and Winston Peters went with Jim Bolger despite having said Bolger was not fit to be Prime Minister. By 1999 Helen Clark had refashioned herself forcefully, with makeup, had made up with renegade Jim Anderton and had remade policy into a “third way”, leavening market economics with some traditional Labour. She won at least as much as National lost.

Three terms later Labour was waning. But also National had shifted centrewards, got an appealing leader, John Key, and won 45 per cent, a figure that says it won at least as much as Labour lost.

This year, as in 1969 and 1981, Labour is in transition — from the baby-boomers to an under-45s cohort, which you might call the 2014 “B team”. That transition is incomplete.

That does not mean Labour cannot win. Complex data crunching, based on American campaign techniques, has pinpointed Labour-leaners who didn’t vote in 2008 and/or 2011 for quizzing and targeting with customised, in-person get-out-and-vote prods. Though the system will take years to fully develop, a trial run in the Christchurch East by-election raised spirits. Labour has more potential campaign activists and fellow-travellers, organised on hubs, than in 2008-11.

But if it wins just on sharper campaigning, it will be with an ageing Peters and the Greens in transition, not a recipe for a long-lived government.

And policy is also still in transition.

Labour explicitly intends to be “active” in the economy: Reserve Bank changes, a state electricity agency, a plan to build 100,000 houses to fix a badly skewed market, ambitions to revive regional development and advantage local firms plus a capital gains tax, tougher tax rules for foreign firms, a living wage and KiwiSaver changes.

And much policy is to be promoted in coming weeks: on housing, including working with builders, developers and not-for-profits; “jobs, skills and training” plus reworking education beyond parroting the unions, with a focus on teacher quality; a rethink of the public service’s role; and a child-first policy.

But until policy detail is firmed uncertainty and confusion hover. Before Christmas David Cunliffe said he would “probably” buy back the part-privatised electricity firms. Hair stood on end in some party quarters.

And when the election platform is settled, will it have transited fully from “third way” policy to a “2020s-way”? Will it make 2014 the “election for the future” some MPs talk of?

Cunliffe has intelligence, proven ministerial ability, charm and presence. But his shine quickly faded in the polls. Voters have not yet discerned the charisma his leadership backers saw.

The critical long-term point for Labour is whether Cunliffe will look like a leader for the future, that is, in effect if not in formality, leader of the up-and-coming “B team” — a leader making a win, not just squeezing in on a National loss.