A party in need of a remake

Alright, come clean. Who’s hidden the National party?

Actually, it will re-launch in the next few days with what Jenny Shipley calls a “strategic” reshuffle — neither major nor a fine-tune.

If Wyatt Creech is to leave Parliament in 2002, the deputy leadership needs sorting now. And there are some younger and newer MPs to be given more responsibility and latitude — as befits the 1999 crop’s quality as the best for a decade.

Is “strategic” enough? Or does National actually need a major remake?

To regain office in 2002 it needs a combination of some or all of:

a serious economic setback that looks like the government’s fault — there was a whiff of that last year and now the United States economy is at last slowing;
gross misjudgment or serious disunity in the government — some of last year’s “credit card” legislation, the “closing the gaps” gaffes and the Dover Samuels affair gave National a premature, deceptive morale boost;
promotion of policies and personnel that voters can recognise as a break with, or a moving on from, the now dated 1990s line;
a recovery of the party organisation which, in the opinion of an acute insider of long experience, is at its weakest since 1945, short of high-quality senior executives and down yet again in total membership, to a tenth of its zenith a quarter of a century ago;
a coalition partner capable of winning seats, an indispensable item in MMP — both Act and New Zealand First are at risk in 2002 and nothing else is yet on the radar.
National has limited scope to influence the first and last.

The second depends on the government generating opportunities. There are vulnerable points in Helen Clark’s management style and in a programme which features a lot of social and civil policy reform, some of it ahead of mainstream opinion.

But to exploit those weak points National has to learn to pass up fights on problems which originated in its term of office and thus leave the government pretty much unscathed. Time and again last year Ms Clark squashed inadequately prepared attacks with contemptuous ease.

Instead, National must undermine Labour on things of its own doing. The most effective so far at this has been Mr Creech in health, which is a timebomb of overcommitment on salaries and underfunding. Auckland, for example, has not signed its contract with the Ministry of Health because it can’t guarantee budgetary ends will meet.

More important is the third, to recast the policy line as a modernised expression of National core values. In this, National is hamstrung by the loss of its ablest thinker, Simon Upton, who in several speeches to party conferences in recent years made useful stabs at redefining National values.

National is hamstrung, too, in the parallel need to refresh its lineup, because its senior figures, even its “brat-pack” younger set that includes Mr English, are strongly identified with the 1990s policies to which the electorate requested a correction in 1999 — so a few ritual executions will not remake the image and may spark destructive factionalism.

Moreover, while to many the government in 2000 seemed even more old-fashioned than National, Ms Clark is now groping towards a potentially powerful “knowledge society” initiative that could be made to look and feel modern, with the political bonus of not being “left” or “right”.

Which brings us to Michelle Boag’s presidential challenge to John Slater. It will be divisive and distracting. The media will likely present it as a surrogate leadership contest.

The membership slump is, at one level, just part of a worldwide turnoff from parties. But old habits die hard. Some fear the mass-membership party, a core element in National’s self-belief, is in jeopardy. Deep in the National psyche is a belief that the party hierarchy should be able to reverse the slide.

Ms Boag has been attracting a new and younger cohort of supporters through her website — people who, if National can wind them in, might energise and freshen the party.

But the ever-bouncy and busy Mr Slater, who can recite a raft of initiatives in 2000 under his aegis, has many debts to call in. And Ms Boag, to win, must convert much of the established conference delegateship. A tantalising conundrum.