National's Tactics

National’s usual route back to power, 1975 excepted, is to let Labour dig its grave and push it in.

The assumption is that National, as a broader-spectrum party, is closer to ordinary folk and therefore can more often command the centre and so a majority, while Labour in power veers into minority pursuits.

National’s initial response to the new government has been of this ilk. In the hot grief of defeat it has acted as if its 30 per cent vote share was the mainstream and Labour’s divergence from the policy line of the past 15 years a fatal leftward lurch.

And, who knows, Labour’s liberalism on some moral issues (last week, marijuana, same-sex relationships) and its retreat from some of National’s experiments in flexibility in social policy (this week, private prisons) might mark its grave. Moreover, its 38 per cent includes many who lent their vote for one election and have yet to be convinced to stay.

But National will ignore at its peril two factors.

One is that a majority backed directional change: 52 per cent voted for parties now in Parliament which broadly endorse Labour’s direction on moral and social policy issues and an active government role in the economy. Only 38 per cent voted for parties now in Parliament which broadly endorse National’s direction.

Roger Sowry used to crow that National’s policies were nearer than Labour’s to popular British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “third way”. But politicians, academics and think tanks I talked to in London last June were clear: Blair’s line was to “talk right but act left”. He had just upped the tax take from the better off; he is transferring resources from the richer to the poorer.

So if the “third way” is the path to long-term government, Labour may be closer to it than National.

The second problematic factor is that there is no centre on or near which National might squat waiting for Labour to veer away. The old centre was destroyed by Sir Robert Muldoon and Sir Roger Douglas in the 1980s.

A party aiming to occupy the centre now must first construct it. That is why we must talk of a “new centre”, not just the “centre ground”.

Jenny Shipley might have used her middling provincial and family values to define and build a new centre but she shied away — almost as if she felt that to play the august and awesome role of Prime Minister she had to be someone bigger than and different from herself.

Bill English unintentionally highlighted this during the Kevin Roberts affair early in 1999. Mrs Shipley, he said, was an “ordinary woman doing an extraordinary job”. The election ad showing her in her garden, then running the cabinet and meeting world leaders cottoned on to the same point.

But she could not accept the political strength of being ordinary. And she did an ordinary job of the extraordinary role.

There was also a strategy deficit. She substituted action for strategy. But too many actions stalled, were watered down or went wrong. And for middling voters action equalled radicalism, the enemy of the centre.

The same passion for action gripped Mrs Shipley before Christmas. MPs were required to fill in a 20-page personal and party “stocktake” questionnaire by January 17.

Mr English is a strategist and he understands middling people. He would construct the new centre by way of modest, results-oriented (not ideology-driven) microeconomic reform at a pace the electorate can accommodate, plus a well-functioning and large welfare state offering a modicum of security in an unstable world.

This “new conservatism” (my phrase) aims for “order”. The centre likes nothing so much as order, unless it be prosperity.

So the strategist National is aiming to hire might do a lot worse than chew the fat with Mr English.

English detractors might scoff that he lacks bite and that only attack will dislodge Labour. They have cause: political journalists were bemused last autumn when at press conferences to drive home National’s “tax attack” on Labour Mr English languidly acknowledged their “ifs” and “buts” when they questioned his statements.

But bypassing Mr English’s long-term strategic approach risks settling for short-term tactics — and short-term results.

A preference for tactics is natural in a conservative party which is used to winning. But, with a new centre to be constructed and occupied — and that to be done against a Labour party determined to get there first and with the advantage of office — tactical manoeuvres most likely will not do.