The Left are a pretty optimistic bunch. And with good cause – after eight successive years of grueling hard-neoliberal governance, and having to watch National’s number of seats only grow regardless, you pretty much have to be. It’s either that, or give up in despair.
But while some might call this a virtue … folks suffering from a delirium of hope are not best known for their astute and perspicacious political analysis. In situations like the one we find ourselves in at the moment where there appear to be a relative paucity of bright spots, we instead take it upon ourselves to manufacture things to make it seem like we’re in with a chance.
Probably the best example of that at the moment, is the sort of breathless furor of amusement from any number of people about how the National Party have hand-picked to lead them into the next election … a man whose previous attempt at a Prime Ministerial performance netted approximately 20.9% of the vote.
It’s not hard to see why this comparatively minor piece of political arcana is suddenly on everybody’s lips. Labourites can take some considerable reassurance that as bad as their poll-numbers are looking … at least they’re not down to *That* level. (Yet…) Meanwhile, other persons in favour of changing the government can relish the prospect that maybe, finally, we’re in with a chance. Surely somebody who bombed out THAT badly can’t continue to replicate the absolute implacable juggernaut electoral success of the Key years … right?
But this ongoing obsession with but a single data-point misses two rather important considerations. First, the explanation for why National did so poorly in 2002 doesn’t simply hinge around “Bill English is a bad leader” (in fact, I’d argue it’s quite a bit more complex than that – and perhaps largely not poor old Bill’s fault); and second, at almost a decade and a half on, we’re in a seriously, SERIOUSLY different political environment now – rendering all past comparisons additionally flimsical.
To turn to the first point … there are several reasons why National performed so poorly in 2002. Most of them are (one way or the other) holdovers from the Nineties. People were still rather annoyed about both National’s own actions throughout the period (remembering that broadspanning anger with what they got up to in their first term of government that decade was significant enough to drive the populace at large to completely upend the nation’s electoral system); as well as continuing to spit tacks about the collapse of the National-NZ First government and the resultant ensuing shenanigans. (So in a way, I guess you could say it was partially Winston’s fault – in much the same way that just about everything in modern New Zealand Politics somehow is)
Now, it’s always going to be tough for a Party which has just been turfed out after nine long years in office to do incredibly well at its first Election as an Opposition. They’ve been used to leaning rather heavily upon the resources of Government (in the form of fat Parliamentary and Ministerial Services staffing, easy media time with which to set and control the narrative, and all the rest of it); they’re much more prepared to patsy-question their own achievements than they are to attack the steadily unfolding works and ethos of their newfound Treasury-bench replacements; and, as mentioned in the preceeding paragraph … people, put quite simply, haven’t had enough time to forget why they voted them out the last time in the first place.
But successful parties (like, for instance, New Zealand First between our ouster in 2008, and our meteoric re-entry to Parliament in 2011) take a step back, take stock, and start Doing Things Different in order to both attempt to overcome these ‘de-institutionalized’ disadvantages – and to convince the public that they’re either ‘Under New Management’ (while perhaps not necessarily having to change over *too* many people), or have ‘Seen The Light’ and mended the previous Error Of Their Ways that was causing all the strife and discontentment out there in the electorate in the fist place.
National’s trouble was that it did neither.
Instead, Jenny Shipley persisted on as Leader of the National Party (and therefore of the Opposition) for almost two years. To call her one of the most reviled PMs in recent NZ political history would, to my mind, be something of an understatement. And she probably would have made an effort to retain the leadership right up until the 2002 election, had Bill English not stepped in and deposed her in October of 2001. The trouble was – particularly with the early election which Helen Clark called for nine months later – there wasn’t really sufficient time for National to seriously rebrand in a way that meaningfully helped voters to get over their anger, distrust, and gentle enthusiasm for hte new guys in Government.
Now had he been in place a term or two later, I don’t think there’s too much serious doubt that he would have started to do much better than his 2002 showing. But fate and fortune had other notions in mind, and so we saw the fairly meteoric (in the sense that it eventually burned up in the political atmosphere) rise of Don Brash to replace him in late 2003.
But if I’ve tried to sketch out that the 2002 defeat wasn’t all English’s fault – I should also probably point out that it wasn’t all National’s fault, either. Even leaving aside the fact that a first term government is usually quite popular out there with the Polis … there were other parties out there who made great and capacious gains against the backdrop of National’s ongoing electoral misery.
Foremost among these, of course, was New Zealand First – who, campaigning on a strong platform of law and order, immigration reform, and miscellaneous treaty bits and pieces (Gosh … that sounds familiar! Perhaps it’s not National whom people should be making 2002 allusions about this cycle…), managed a fairly impressive recovery from our 1999 nadir by adding eight seats and capturing 10.38% of the vote.
But there were, of course, others. In those days, each of ACT and United Future were acutally serious parties (it seems crazy now, doesn’t it). ACT was still sitting strong on the gains it had previously made at National’s fairly direct expense (nine seats, and 7.14% of the vote – somewhere between ten and a hundred times their present modern-day level of support); while United Future ballooned like Peter Dunne’s bouffant – adding 7 seats and 5.04% of the vote, for a combined total of eight and 6.69%. [We can also presumably make the case that the occasionally small C’s Christian Conservatism of the United Future lot might have fairly directly trod upon the toes of Bill English’s personal brand]
Oh, and alongside this Labour was putting out a rather different set of signals as applies ‘minor parties’ than it is right now. Referring to the Greens as “anarcho-feminists and goths” is exactly the kind of derisive (if occasionally semi-grain-of-truth-bearing) electoral rhetoric which reassures the sort of voters who’ve decided to continue to back National (or NZ First) because they can’t stand the Greens – but who were Labour voters once, even if the contemporary prospects for wooing them home appear somewhat irrevocably dim.
So straightaway, you can start to get a bit of a picture as to why National looked to poll so dismally in late July 2002. They hadn’t meaningfully distinguished themselves from one of the worst governments in modern NZ history, people were still annoyed; they were up against a fairly competent and broadly popular first-term government; and their vote was hewed up with somewhere between 15-20% of what National now holds being divvied up amongst more ‘minor’ parties.
NONE of these factors really apply to the modern National party here, now, in 2016.
Instead, it’s almost – curiously – exactly the inverse. National remains a strong and broadly popular (I can’t quite bring myself to say ‘competent’) Government even this late in their third term. There are some rumblings of discontent and some minor-faux-pas-that-should-have-surely-been-major-ones here and there … but vociferous suggestions that “third-term-itis” have set in are for the most part wildly overblown. John Key remains the most popular PM in recent memory (a stark contrast to Jenny Shipley) – and even though National looks set to take *a* hit as the result of the transition, I doubt it will be that major (not least because Key’s personal popularity has for some time now been polling lower than National’s party support – so his leaving may not affect it). So they’re really in a position of strength. Even if something semi-unthinkable (at this stage, anyway) happened and they suddenly haemorrhaged something like ten percent of the vote … they’d still be on or about 40% – and only one half-decent coalition partner away from forming the next Government. (Again)
Meanwhile, over on the Opposition benches … Labour’s facing almost exactly the same problem which National once did all those years ago back in 2002. Their vote’s gone to the four winds, and they – as yet – appear to have precious little idea how to properly beg it to return. New Zealand First continues to go from strength to strength as the direct result & consequence of Labour’s weakness (it is not accidental that Winston now rails very loudly against ‘neoliberalism’ – he’s making a conscious play to be the core pillar of its opposition in territory where the left wing of Labour once sat) – with many, I have no doubt, of the tens of thousands of voters and 11 list seats we picked up on Election Night 2014 having come to us fairly directly from the former Red. And with NZ First continuing to rise, I don’t see Labour’s Sheolish turmoil coming to an end any time soon.
The Greens are in a similar position (albeit not rising as fast – or, according to some estimations, really at all – their share of the vote actually dropped in 2014, even if their seats didn’t). They’ve increased in stature by a decent nine seats since Labour was last in Government in 2008 – and it seems fair to state that each of the three and five seats they picked up in 2008 and 2011 were largely at Labour’s expense as the latter’s vote continued to disintegrate before entering full-on free-fall.
Alongside this, there is also talk that some much-muttered about MANA-Maori Party alliance may yet ‘deliver’ more than a single one of the Maori Seats from Labour to other parties – further hewing into one of the only areas on our electoral landscape where it can still be feasibly said that Labour is relatively strong.
And turning to Labour itself – while Andrew Little appears to be a throughly decent figure, the continual polldrums (like doldrums, but with an excess of wind-flow due to hot-air of everybody talking about them) show no sign of abating in the near future – rendering Labour a substantial shoe-in to remain in the low-twenties from now until election day next year.
Indeed, you could almost say that Andrew Little represents something of a latter-day 2002-era Bill English…
So with all that in mind … I get it, I really do, as to why people are laughing up a storm on social media as to Bill English’s previous record as Leader of the National Party. It’s certainly nice to pretend, for an all too brief moment, that National’s somehow stuffed up its leadership selection – and that we’ll all soon benefit fairly directly as a result with a Blue-vote collapse. But everybody’s got a past – and that doesn’t necessarily (especially when it’s not actually their fault nor a substantive reflection upon them) determine their present nor future.
National is not phenomenally weak – and it will not become so just and purely because they’ve elected to go with a ‘safe pair of hands’ for next year’s Election. (Indeed, given much of Middle New Zealand appears to vote largely on the basis of who makes them feel the most that the economy’s being well-managed regardless of the actual truth … one COULD say that National’s in fact selected the ideal man for the job of keeping them in the Blue Tent).
So laugh at The Civilian piece on this theme all you want … but remember: if we actually want to defeat National, it’ll take an awful lot more than historical-factoid guffawing in order for us to get there.