WHOEVER EMERGES VICTORIOUS from National’s leadership contest will face the challenge of re-defining their party’s core political mission. With Labour showing little sign of deviating from the general policy lines of the Clark-Cullen ministry – lines which John Key and Bill English more-or-less adhered to for nine years – it makes little sense to define National as Not-Labour. The steady reduction of the formerly stark ideological differences between National and Labour makes the Not-Labour definition increasingly problematic.
The relative sameness of the two major parties leaves both of them acutely vulnerable to any sudden break from the status-quo. Any sudden lurch to the far-right by National, for example, would benefit Labour hugely. Without having to deviate even slightly from its current policy settings, the Labour Party would be able to energise its base by presenting Jacinda Ardern’s government as the defender of moderate mainstream values against right-wing extremism. A lurch to the far-left by Labour and its allies would confer an identical advantage upon National. Policy convergence guarantees obvious electoral benefits to both parties.
Just how important preserving bipartisan policy convergence has become in the major western democracies was illustrated by the reaction of the US Democratic Party’s National Committee to Bernie Sanders presidential bid, and the response of British Labour Party MPs to the election of Jeremy Corbyn. The reaction of both party establishments was one of shock and horror. They were convinced that the enunciation of radical ‘socialist’ ideas would render their parties “unelectable”.
Events appear to have proved them right.
By the same token, the triumph of the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom, and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, has been taken as evidence of a sudden lurch towards extremism by two political parties hitherto perceived as moderate and mainstream. The dramatic improvement in the fortunes of the Democratic Party and the British Labour Party would appear to confirm the wisdom of keeping one’s political colours safely inside the lines.
Presumably, this explains why so many National Party MPs, while remaining tight-lipped about who they intend to vote for, are only too happy to make clear who they will be voting against.
The election of Judith Collins as Leader of the Opposition would allow Jacinda Ardern to go into the 2020 general election as the nation’s protector. The electorate would be urged to use their votes as shields against a rabidly right-wing National Party. The effectiveness of this pitch was proved by Helen Clark’s 2005 exhortation: “Don’t put it all at risk!” In successfully casting National’s Don Brash as an ideological bridge too far, Labour eked out a narrow election win.
The rejoinder of Team Collins would, undoubtedly, be that the secret to winning elections is to increase – not decrease – the level of political polarisation. Pitting like against like in any political contest benefits only the incumbent.
Polarisation can be benign, as it was, generally speaking, in Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many, Not the Few” campaign against Teresa May’s Tories; or, malign, as in Trump’s divisive crusade to “Make America Great Again”. The point Team Collins would make is that there has to be a clear reason for voting one way or the other. Without a clear choice before them, voters have an irritating tendency to opt for the devil they know.
The core political mission for National’s caucus is, therefore, a curiously biblical one. It must choose a John the Baptist figure to prepare the way for National’s Saviour to come. The hard-line Brash energised National’s base and gathered-up the overwhelming majority of New Zealand’s right-wing voters beneath its dark-blue banner. He was then removed from the scene so that John Key’s sunny, jokey, Labour-Lite Messiah could start turning water into wine. National’s caucus is thus tasked with identifying which candidate’s voice will sound the most persuasive crying in the wilderness. It must also decide whose head it is most willing to see served up on a platter in the aftermath of a 2020 election defeat.
The candidate seeking the role of Jesus in this two-part resurrection drama would be well-advised to spend the next two-and-a-half years keeping his, or her, head down in the National Party equivalent of Nazareth.