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Peter Wilson: Labour Sets Itself On The Road To Recovery

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
Phil Goff
Phil Goff

Labour has managed itself surprisingly well since losing last year's election.

For a party driving uphill against a popular government, its weekend conference in Rotorua was as good as it gets.

It could have descended into back-biting recrimination and despair, as it did after it lost the 1990 election.

Or it could have sunk into the gloomy naval-gazing and leadership uncertainty that beset National after it was ousted in 1999.

It hasn't, and in stark contrast about 600 delegates turned up to seriously debate policy in packed workshop sessions and listen to their new leader tell them how he plans to win in 2011.

This remarkable composure is in large part due to Helen Clark's decision to announce on election night that she was stepping down, followed soon after by her deputy, Michael Cullen.

There was a seamless handover to Phil Goff and Annette King, a unanimous caucus vote that dispelled any doubt about their authority.

And there were 14 new MPs on Labour's benches, fresh and keen to get into the business of Parliament. Having that much fresh blood was itself an achievement for a party that had lost and was largely due to Clark's rejuvenation programme which had weeded out long-serving backbenchers.

The party also has a new president, Andrew Little, who has taken over from the jaded Mike Williams, and a new general secretary, Mike Flatt.

Goff came to the conference with a well-signalled intention of apologising for the things that went wrong, bad calls that added to the then government's pre-election woes.

This he did -- hoping it was for the last time -- when he reeled off the various issues that allowed National to call Labour a nanny-state government.

He also admitted, for the first time, that having New Zealand First as a partner party during its scandalous funding crisis hadn't helped either.

So far so good. He has drawn a line under the election loss, laid out his credentials as leader and committed his party to listening to voters, getting in beside them, and developing policies that address their most pressing concerns.

What the party still has to do is find a way to deal with National's runaway poll ratings -- much higher now than on election night -- and Prime Minister John Key's personal popularity.

Goff acknowledged at the conference it was going to take time, and said that right now the new government was at a stage in the electoral cycle where it was still being given the benefit of the doubt by voters.

He promised Labour would be there, ready and waiting, when the cycle turned.

Goff knows, and probably most delegates know as well, that National is very unlikely to be a one-term government.

The previous National government served three terms, and the last Labour government served three terms.

The current government, although it inherited a recession, has been able to carry voters with it since the last election in a way that must give Goff and his front bench colleagues much cause for concern.

And National hasn't had an easy ride in government. There have been problems, a ministerial resignation, difficult issues to deal with, scandals about housing allowances, hard calls to make and a very hard budget to write.

Despite that, it is running at close to 60 percent support in the polls compared with the 44.9 percent of the party vote it won on election night.

So while Goff now appears to be fireproof through this term of Parliament, what happens if Labour loses again in 2011?

He won't go there, despite some fairly intense questioning about his long-term future by reporters at the conference.

Perhaps during the next two years a challenger will emerge from Labour's ranks, and a bid to oust him would be made after the next election.

There are no challengers now, despite rumours mostly spread by National. Annette King doesn't want the leadership, in the same way Cullen never wanted Clark's job, which makes her an excellent deputy.

Labour is now just about where Goff wants it to be. Stable and with a good party organisation which is working on ways to build membership and raise more funds.

The new MPs are enthusiastic, some of them are showing signs of real competence, and they will be a formidable force in a couple of years time when Labour goes into the next election campaign.

Goff is a highly experienced politician, he should be able to handle the pitfalls which inevitably lie ahead of him. If he can't, then all bets are off.

He has opportunities to develop policies which voters will find attractive -- taking on the power companies, for example, which he announced at the conference.

Labour can position itself to help those suffering from the recession by promising more than the Government has so far offered.

But none of this is going to be easy. The policies have to be credible, voters have to see them as more than opposition promises which might never become reality.

For Labour, it is work in progress. And there is a lot of it.

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