Forget the Jones boy. A much bigger transition looms

Shane Jones’s going was in character: hubris, self-belief and oratory. All politicians need those HSO characteristics but real top-notchers have a leavening of counterbalancing HSOs: humility, self-deprecation (John Key is good at that) and output.

Jones could never have been leader. His machismo didn’t fit in a party still quaintly majority-fixated on identity politics. He had too much of the first HSOs and too little of the second HSOs.

So, though he had strong personal reasons for going, a true party man would have telegraphed it well in advance, not suddenly five months before an election and not with an offer on the table from National of a newly-minted job. Contrast Simon Power in 2011.

Jones takes with him Labour’s highest-profile pitch to the long-lost conservative male wage worker tribe. He highlighted in interviews his distaste of Greens. He sends a message of disunity at a fragile time. Replacement Kelvin Davis has high potential but party bosses didn’t recognise that with a winning list place in 2011.

So Labour has again to restart. Its 30 per cent poll average mid-March-early April is the lowest since April 2012, when David Shearer was newly leader. Add David Cunliffe’s awkwardness over Russel Norman’s request for a formal coalition-in-advance in the campaign, as Australia’s Liberals and Nationals do, and Winston Peters’ grumping about cabinet posts for Greens. Labour’s claim to be an alternative government has weakened.

In 2011 when voters concluded Labour would not be the government, many abandoned it and many — 5 per cent of the national total vote — voted for a Labour electorate candidate but party-voted Green.

National averaged a whopping 47 per cent in polls mid-March-early April. But that doesn’t quite get it over the line even if ACT and United Future each win an electorate. It needs a reluctant Maori party or a reluctant Peters or Colin Craig. But Craig needs a safe National electorate seat, yet to be arranged and he has said he doesn’t want one and time is beginning to run short.

Nevertheless, National was at 47 per cent, Labour at 30 per cent and Labour-plus-Greens at only 42 per cent mid-March-early April. Through 2013 National and Labour-plus-Greens were tied at 46 per cent in polls.

That suggests National has sussed the electorate and Labour hasn’t. But is this for real over time or is it transitory?

The real bit is a rising economy, very strong consumer and business confidence figures and strong and rising poll readings that the country is on the right track. Even with rising mortgage rates, the momentum right now is for National and against Labour.

Moreover, National is refurbishing an astonishing quarter of its caucus, which has given it the opportunity to bring in a stash of under-45s. It is now not out of the question that by 2017 National will appear to voters to be further through the transition to that next generation of policymakers than Labour, which has had pole position since 2008.

But will National even then be in tune with big change now under way in economic and consequently social policy thinking? Or will it be behind the play?

The big news of the past 10 days has been Thomas Piketty, who has reworked western economic history to show that unchecked market capitalism rewards the already well-off in a self-reinforcing loop: income from capital outruns income from wages and salaries.

Hence rising inequality. The political result (this is not from Piketty): a rise in populist parties in the United States and much of Europe, which destabilise democratic politics. If not neutralised, populism can at times turn nasty and, with that, economically damaging.

The Treasury has drawn its staff’s attention to Piketty. Rightwing Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf showered superlatives on his new book, now No 1 on Amazon.

Piketty, to whom I will return in a future column, is 42. He may possibly be the harbinger of a new generation of thinkers former Bank of England governor Lord King of Rothbury hoped, in a speech here in February, will rework economic theory because ageing “fuddy-duddies” like him had got it wrong.

National’s leadership is in the long shadow of the “fuddy-duddies” (baby boomers). Is Labour’s?

The leaderships are closely similar in age. And much of Labour’s adoption of “active government” reflects “fuddy-duddy” cohort dissidents’ thinking. It is a sharp break with the past 30 years orthodoxy — not least David Parker’s radical remake of macroeconomic policy, including the addition this morning of another “tool” for the Reserve Bank to help keep interest rates, house prices and the exchange rate down. But it is not startlingly new.

Parker intends to read Piketty. Some other Labour MPs are aware of him. If Piketty proves to be the core of genuinely new orthodoxy, which we can’t know yet, and Labour tunes in, Labour might start in time to look like the future instead of a 30-percenter.

Waka-jumper Jones is already old news.

• The original version of this spelt Piketty’s name wrongly.