Changing National’s leadership will not help the conservatives regain power if they fail to address questions of why they lost the 2017 election.
Many, if not most, Nats don’t accept, or understand, they lost the election.
Many still think that because they won 44.4 percent of the vote and won the most seats, they won the election.
Few really understand why. They blame the few party friends National had. The Maori Party and United got wiped out and ACT garnered next to no support.
They also don’t get that 44.4 percent support is likely as good as it gets for National. In all probability, that number at the next election will be substantially lower, assuming Jacinda Ardern maintains her adroit performance to date and there is no international economic shock.
National fought a first-past-the-post election in 2017. National consistently and comprehensively failed to grasp the nature of MMP.
MMP is about consensus but, because it is almost impossible to achieve such consensus that it wins an absolute majority, consensus is also about working with, and weaving several brands together.
The famous National Party advertisement of the two boats – one a smoothly synchronised rowing eight and the other of a tub with rowers pulling in different directions, was incredibly effective and helped National win the 2014 election. But ironically, that meme actually symbolises National’s problem – it is essentially a one-man band.
Because so many in National refuse to believe they were truly beaten in 2017, there has been an utter failure to seriously analyse what went wrong, either at an ideological level or even at the level of how does the party find credible bedmates.
The current leadership issue seems to be framed as “how can we do the same, but better,” rather than having a good, close look in the mirror about fundamental issues.
After the 2017 election, when NZ First’s Winston Peters was weighing his options, almost every Nat trotted out the line about why the Greens didn’t bypass the middleman and do a deal. Not one Nat that I spoke to flipped the argument about to suggest the Nats should put a proposal to the Greens.
What rats would the Nats have had to swallow for such a deal?
Firstly, they would have had to get serious about climate change instead of pursuing the absurd tokenist game they were playing.
Secondly, they would have to get serious about cleaning up waterways – something that even most dairy farmers believe is desirable, even if they are unwilling to pay the cost.
Thirdly, they would have to drop their pursuit of mining exploration and be prepared to phase out coal mining. The coal, oil and mining industries are in serious decline anyway despite National’s foolhardy support for them. New Zealand’s economic future is in technology, not in the ground.
All these rats would have improved National’s popularity and none was unswallowable.
Even if it was not credible the Green Party would have entertained bedding with the devil given National had been so antagonistic for so long, it is something that National should be considering now in light of their election failure.
A serious failure usually opens opportunities.
This one is gives National the chance to take the party into the 21st century, something it has resolutely opposed to date. They should shun the rhetoric of Green hate and ridicule that is currently prevalent and develop policies that don’t leave the door slammed shut to a Green deal.
As it stands, National remains rooted in the ideological mud of farming. National needs to shift its focus from farmers, who have nowhere else to go politically, and shift its centre of gravity to the city, so blue-greens are not ashamed to support them.
After their campaign in 2017 to “leave out the middleman”, how the Nats saw any prospect of deal with Peters shows they occupied some alternate reality. The dirty business of revealing Peters’ superannuation overpayments was never an accident and Peters was not going to let that lie.
National clearly thought they could repeat the 2014 result and win with minimal assistance from ACT, United First and the Maori Party. But every amateur political pundit knew from early in 2015 that NZ First was virtually certain to hold the balance. Why were National’s strategists so dumb to ignore that prospect?
So where does National go from here?
They may hope that 72 year-old Peters will retire and that NZ First under former Labour MP Shane Jones will be more inclined to support them. (Apparently, Jones holds a grudge against Labour’s Grant Robertson for outing him over his hotel porn scandal.) However, that seems both hopeful thinking and vague.
Finding another bedfellow that can garner over 5 percent of the vote should be their main aim. John Key missed a trick because he had the same first-past-the-post thinking when he failed to offer Conservative Party a break in 2014 when they were polling 4 percent-plus. Despite past looney leadership, a conservative Christian party winning 5 percent support is probably realistic. However, whether that cannabalizes National’s vote and how fitting such a party into a transformed 21st century National Party, would be highly problematic.
A change of leadership would at least opens up the prospect of transformation.
Despite having shifted from Dipton to Wellington, English has never made the ideological shift to the city. He identifies with farmers and sees them as National’s natural constituency. He, and his generation of National leaders, such as Judith Collins, Gerry Browlee and Steven Joyce, are incapable of making the kind of ideological shift that National needs.
Other leadership contenders like Amy Adams, Simon Bridges or Nikki Kaye at least understood Ardern when she said climate change is her generation’s moon shot.
English, for all his qualities as a safe pair of hands and a consensus politician, is a dead man walking. He will not lead National in 2020. Labour will rub its hands in glee if he does.
But if National wants to avoid reliving the revolving door leadership problem that dogged Labour for so long, they better select someone who has the insight and brains to address their ideological and strategic partnership issues.
There is no evidence that anyone there has the ability or willingness to do that, so National look likely to spend at least as long in the wilderness as Labour has spent and amen to that.
Simon Louisson is a former journalist who reported for The Wall Street Journal, AP Dow Jones Newswires, the New Zealand Press Association and Reuters and was briefly a political and media adviser to the Green Party.