• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

What's new?

Renewal is a big problem for an embattled Labour government accused of being tired, complacent, out-of-touch, stale and too far to the right.

It is a pretty fair bet that while the Prime Minister was officially on holiday this month, well-thumbed copies of the New Statesman were never far from hand. Helen Clark has long been an avid reader of the left-of-centre British political weekly. So much so, the magazine's website highlights her glowing endorsement of the journal.

Clark's attention, however, will have been fixed on the on-running debate over the "renewal" of British Labour following last May's election setback and Tony Blair's pending departure from Downing Street.

If anything, renewal in office is a more complicated proposition for New Zealand Labour, which also begins its third term on the government benches and is already battling similar suggestions that it is tired, complacent, out-of-touch, stale and too far to the right. Benson-Pooped, in fact. And that critique from its own supporters, no less.

Blair may have been humiliated by his recent loss of a parliamentary vote following a backbench revolt over anti-terrorism legislation. He still has a 66-seat majority. The strange contraption that is Clark's minority administration, with its confidence-and-supply partners swimming alongside like pilot fish, one moment part of the government, yet not the next, must make it mindblowingly difficult to develop a strategic plan for the next three years.

Clark first spoke of the need for renewal and rejuvenation at the Council of Trade Unions conference last October - a fitting forum given the deepening reservations on the Left about Labour's direction (or lack of it), particularly the shabby treatment of the Greens in the post-election haggling for power and favour.

Then followed Clark's version of the Night of the Long Knives and the wholesale reshuffle of those who still had a Cabinet job into completely new port-folios. There has also been a changing of the guard among Beehive staff, the most notable the voluntary departure of Mike Munro, Clark's chief press secretary for near on a decade. The large shoes he leaves will be filled by David Lewis, another long-time Clark staffer, who is just as capable and equally unflappable, but is more overtly Labour than Munro.

However, personnel changes are only part of the "renewal" equation. Labour has become so adept - some would say obsessed - at monopolising the vote-rich centre-ground that, as a government, it is drifting inexorably to the right and away from the ideals which, at the end of the day, anchor it on the centre-left and which give it, as a party, reason for existing.

It is as if Labour has signed some Faustian pact whereby it retains office for now but pays for it later as loyalists drift away, fed up with the constant compromise and relentless pragmatism.

As an example, look no further than the pre-Christmas dumping of the carbon tax. The Cabinet agreed with an officials' review of climate change policy, which concluded that the tax was fundamentally flawed and allowed too many exemptions.

However, the failure to come up with any firm alternative to fulfil New Zealand's Kyoto Protocol obligations has annoyed party activists, who see the sudden dumping of the tax as Labour behaving like a pale echo of National.

No doubt this dissatisfaction will have surfaced during the Labour Party's summer school on the Firth of Thames, whose theme this year has been - you guessed it - "renewal". This initiative is notable, first for its timing; second for the scheduled list of speakers, which included party president Mike Williams, party secretary Mike Smith and the Prime Minister's husband, sociologist Peter Davis; and third because it is rare for Labour to indulge in such a splurge of introspection - or at least to be seen to be doing so.

It was a clever idea. The informality of a summer school places no obligations on anyone to do anything, yet leaves everyone free to raise issues and ideas, especially those employed by sister parties overseas.

Clark, of course, has long drawn from the well of Blairism. Sometimes this has worked - the copying of Blair's pocket-sized pledge card instantly comes to mind. Sometimes it has not - Clark's prognostications on the "ownership society" being very much a case in point.

The notion of the ownership society revolved around Labour setting up state-sponsored savings schemes - be it for home ownership or a tertiary education. The spin-off was that those signing up to this exercise in asset accumulation would forever thank Labour.

This was the "big idea" that was going to carry Labour through the 2005 election and underpin its third term.

It was completely blown out of the water by National's tax cuts - money in the hand now, not money gathering dust in some savings account.

Unable to persuade Michael Cullen to head John Key off at the pass, Clark was forced to redefine the election as a life-and-death struggle to save state-run health, education and social services from gouging by Don Brash, who was caricatured as some kind of rampaging dinosaur that had somehow escaped from a Jurassic Park of 1990s New Right ideology.

It worked. Just. But it has left a huge void.

When Clark came to power in 1999, Labour's first-term agenda was clear: slam the brakes on free-market forces, rebuild the welfare state to the extent government coffers would sensibly allow, and restore confidence in the public service and faith in politicians.

The post-2002 agenda was all about stumping up with a social dividend in the form of income top-ups for low- to middle-income working families. This was supposed to be the big pay-off for the left. This was Labour's opening barrage in the long-neglected war on poverty. Well, not quite. Beneficiaries missed out on entitlements under the Working for Families programme. No matter. It was big picture stuff.

Where is the "big idea" for this term that will lift voters' sights above the inevit-able ministerial blunders and bureaucratic botch-ups that prove so corrosive to a government's standing?

You won't find it in last month's budgetary policy statement - the taster for this year's Budget. The BPS - as it is more commonly known - contains the usual puffery about how the government is taking "an inclusive, forward-looking approach and building our sense of national identity, confidence and -creativity ..."

Appointing Winston Peters as Foreign Minister was certainly creative. So far, it has not done a lot for national identity and confidence.

But then, the BPS says much about the state of Labour. It boasts how the Budget will deliver on Labour's promise of interest-free student loans and the extension to Working for Families. The former is a hugely popular policy. Whether it is a good Labour policy is another matter. But this was one pledge that had to be honoured.

The party might also ask itself whether it really fits Labour ideology to expand Working for Families holus-bolus to those on higher incomes.

The answer is that the tight election required such pragmatism to blunt National's more tempting tax cuts.

However, since polling day, Labour has continued to mainline on pragmatism. The reason? National is now breathing down Labour's neck. That, more than anything, is driving the government's behaviour.

Although Labour would argue that the numbers fell in a way that left it no choice, the forsaking of the Greens for Peters and Peter Dunne reflected the desire not to frighten middle-ground voters off the new government and into National's arms.

For the same reason, Labour is no longer willing to be the vanguard of social reform, having been punished at the ballot box for allowing civil unions, legalising prostitution and banning smoking in bars.

Again, that leaves a void. But Clark hates losing control of the centre-ground. Furthermore, she can no longer rely on a booming economy to provide the cover that previously allowed Labour to contemplate unpopular measures.

And the "play it safe" option will be chosen more and more as the public mood switches, as it will sooner or later, and voters decide that Labour has outlived its welcome.

Such a mood shift is extremely difficult to reverse. Which is why Labour is hell-bent on it not happening. The trouble is that the preventative diet of compromise and pragmatism is making some of its more idealistic core supporters nauseous. And it may yet prove to be the death of Labour.

Jane Clifton is on leave.