2010: Opposition strike bum note, but do hard yards

It was a year of much effort but little reward for Labour and the Greens (and the Progressives). So was it a year wasted, another step towards oblivion? Or was vital groundwork laid?

I seriously need to get over 2010, but first I need to write about the opposition parties; which means Labour, the Greens and, for the sake of history rather than politics, the Progressives.

It's a short list, which is an often over-looked aspect of this, our 49th parliament. With New Zealand First missing out in 2008 there's one less voice being offered in opposition to the government's will and whim. And when you consider that voice is essentially Winston Peter's, that's like a brass band trying to play without its tuba. And its cymbals, for that matter.

The parties that are there to oppose certainly sounded as if they were a few instruments short of a band last year; the intent of course was there, but they couldn't raise the volume to a level where many voters could here it.

Perhaps they were strategising badly, missing the point or up against better operators. Arguably they were just too nice, or too dull. But a heck of a lot that was beyond their control went against them.

My observation a week or two back that National had a very lucky year by definition means that the opposition parties were unlucky. Terribly so. None more so than Labour.

Each time leader Phil Goff and his front bench seemed to be gaining a hint of traction, a natural disaster struck – the Canterbury earthquake, the Pike River explosion, Chris Carter... For the Greens, it was a matter of winning the Schedule 4 mining debate, only for the big mining story of the year to turn out to be about human safety... And the Progressives, well, their well-orchestrated dissolution – ie, Jim Anderton's move from central to local body politics – was rumbled by the earthquake.

But luck aside, none would be very happy with the year gone. Then again, none apart from Anderton would be gutted either.

Labour was largely impotent. It failed to gain in the polls, Goff couldn't get past the curse of experience in an age when voters bore quickly, and it simply lacked spark. By any normal poltical standards, Goff's leadership failed because it failed to connect with voters. I mean, 20 points behind. Dead man walking, and all that.

If David Cunliffe (or even Trevor Mallard) had wanted the job last year, or if Shane Jones hadn't porned himself out of the running for a year or two, Labour's caucus might have had something to think about.

But the fact is that Goff is safe until after this year's election. He gets one shot, at least. And you can make the case that Labour's year wasn't as bad as it looks.

While Goff's ratings are hopelessly low, Labour's held steady in the early 30s. The party hasn't slumped to the Bill English-led lows that National endured between 1999 and 2002 (although Labour hasn't faced its equivalent of the 2002 election yet, so, while it's unlikely, Goff could yet become Labour's English). After nine years, Labour can take comfort in retaining a base only around 10 percent (or less) of what it would need to govern.

And it has spent its fallow time wisely. Looking back, 2010 may be remembered very fondly in Labour circles as the year it rebuilt, even rediscovered, itself.

I've heard from people across the political spectrum how well Labour has worked up new policy ideas, and given that 'Old Goff' is Labour's greatest detriment, fresh ideas will be vital.

Annette King's new child-led policy focus is smart politics, Goff's excitement about green-tech is the enthusiasm you expect from a Leader of the Opposition (remember when Key really was ambitious for New Zealand. Ireland of course wasn't the promised land he once thought, but he had schemes, oh yes he did), and Cunliffe seems to be fashioning an interesting economic platform that recognises a renewed, post-recession public willingness for governments to lead.

If National doesn't remain nimble, Labour could yet nick the whole NZ Inc concept out from under its nose.

Yet National has been nimble, and Labour failed to find a way round that. It's been able to pin shared responsibility on Labour in every major crisis, or blame it on international forces. Labour has tried and tried again to lay blame at this government's door, but John 'teflon' Key has repeatedly prevailed.

Chris Carter and his eternal expense escapade just made the party look silly, the relationship between Goff and president Andrew Little still seems to need some work, and the Mana by-election was a pretty poor showing in many ways.

But, again, the glass half full view is that the party has shaken off Carter and some other dead wood (it's, er, time Mr Hawkins) and, without loss of seats or too much face, has had some trial runs at framing its message and tactics before the big race this year.

Perhaps the best news for the party in 2010 was Len Brown's comfortable victory in the Auckland mayoral race, reassuring the party that Labour ideas and lingo can still triumph in the big city, at least. While the question of whether that can work as well in any of the provinces remains moot, it was encouraging for the party given Auckland's importance in the general election.

If you want an idea of how much that worries National, consider that the PM allowed both Nikki Kaye (Auckland Central) and Paula Bennett (Waitakere) to criticise the government on local issues in 2010 and let ACT's Rodney Hide take centre-stage over the Auckland city elections.

In short, the Labour party still looks the unfashionable skinny kid being picked on in the playground. But it spent the past year taking karate lessons and saving up its lollies to give out come playtime. We'll just have to wait to see what happens in the next few months, when the bell rings.

The Progressives... Let's not even bother. They prepared to rejoin the Labour Party, which will finally close the circle after a generation of post-1984 warfare on the left, but they hardly troubled the scorers.

The Greens, I suspect, will feel they should have done just a little better. The Schedule 4 debate is the kind of rare crossroads where Green core values and public opinion meet, yet they never owned the issue as they might have.

They too had a prepatory year, with the second generation leaders warming up on the sidelines for what they hope will be a more prominent role this year. They got their face and names out a bit, and probably won more brownie points than they lost, thanks to the government's backdown on mining and the Greens' consistent stance on MPs' expenses.

But history's current was running against them. New Zealanders were in a cautious mood, focused on solvency and short-termism. The Green's politics of the 'greater good' didn't fit easily, and no-one was really listening to them much on tax and savings anyway.

When people are worried about their jobs and savings, Metiria Turei's bone carving can look just a bit too big and Russel Norman's passionate defence of rivers a little too dry. The search for that extra few percent, which frankly has to be found in middle class suburbs, did not seem to progress, however. And it's in that crucial regard that I think they'll feel disappointed. It didn't help either that National's u-turn on foreign ownership stole one of their main weapons in another core Green issue that voters get wound up about.

But if you want to see the river as half full, the party's poll ratings ended the year about where it began (although it had slid a little late in the year). Around seven percent isn't a way for a third party to be entering an election year, given it's almost identical to what they got at the polls in 2008, after all the glare of an election campaign.

The Greens didn't seem to profit from the by-elections, but they did get two new fresh faces into parliament (I know, Dave Clendon arrived at the end of 2009, but December hardly counts), including the country's youngest MP in Gareth Hughes, who was born in 1981... Sigh.

And it's something of that youthful vigour both parties will be looking to find in themselves in the year ahead. With National still feeling the public's laid back love two years after the previous election, both parties must be wondering what on earth they can do to disentangle them from each other's embrace.

Ah, but isn't that what election years are all about! Is that a brass band I hear a-coming?