The spectre that stalks Bill English

A spectre stalks Bill English: the National sympathiser who votes Labour to block out the Greens.

This sort of talk has been around for the best part of a year. It quietened after Jenny Shipley was dumped in October. But it revived when English and his party disappeared during the summer.

The line goes like this. Labour looks odds-on for a second term. The Green peril is on the rise. So vote Labour to give the Labour-Alliance coalition a majority and leave no levers in Green hands.

It gets worse for English. Now, as often as not, the refrain adds — in tones ranging from grudging to glowing — something like: “…and she is doing not too bad a job.” (“She” is Helen Clark.)

No National sympathiser wants a Labour government, of course, and this talk should fade as the election looms. But all National sympathisers would quickly settle for a Labour-dominated majority government incorporating a shrivelled Alliance if they believed the most likely alternative was a Green-dependent government.

English’s primary task is to turn this thinking on its head, to convince National sympathisers that voting Labour is no guarantee a second-term government will not be at the Green’s mercy — and a Green-dependent government would be much easier to beat in 2005. Such thinking might reduce the odds against National this year.

But with National’s poll ratings since his takeover averaging only 35 per cent and the left’s lead over the right averaging 17 per cent (to which the Greens contribute 7 per cent), this syndrome may dog him a while yet, detracting from his bid to add votes.

It doesn’t help that the news media and commentators have all but written him off for this election.

Nor that, like Helen Clark before him, he is more suited to government than opposition, more at ease with a thematic approach than hard policy nuggets, better at strategic direction than slashing criticism.

Moreover, when he tries to slash, his voice zips up half an octave to sound like an excitable gnat against lioness Clark — who herself re-keyed half an octave lower when she was in his “unelectable” shoes in 1996.

Clark also took fashion lessons, took stunning portraits and took to honing one-liners till they became second nature.

Against that, English’s new fitted grey suit is only a start. But, like Clark before him, he has set out to learn. One method: he hires in cameras and prods his staff to do him over. He reckons that is more effective than slick media trainers.

And, like Clark, he likes learning. So instead of looking bewildered, battered and beaten, English fronts up fresh-faced, fizzing and full of fun. You have to see it to believe it.

But for believability he also has to get his MPs to change, to stop thinking as a government-in-exile and become an opposition — to adjust to the new political realities, to take the long view, to build the next National government instead of tending the embers of the old one.

The 1990-99 National government committed the cardinal New Zealand electoral sin: it was “extreme”. What English has to do this year is recondition his party as “centrist” — meaning, not the midpoint between left and right, but the opposite of “extreme”.

Holding this course is going to be problematic because Clark got to the centre first. Differentiating National enough to woo middling voters will be very difficult. That’s the “she’s not doing too bad a job” syndrome.

Yesterday Clark pitched her economic policy squarely in that centre. She will next month symbolically repair the United States relationship in George Bush’s Oval Office — that’s very centrist. She quickly backs out of any cul de sac where there is a whiff of extremism.

What can English do? Superannuation presents one opportunity. More strategically, he might appropriate the decentralisation of government, into which Labour is edging but with great ambivalence.

And he will be helped as some figures indelibly “extreme” in the public mind announce their retirements: Jenny Shipley and John Luxton already, Max Bradford before too long.

So expect an improvement. But will it be enough to escape the National-sympathisers-vote-Labour spiral? That’s his primary task.

*Colin James’s column will run on Tuesdays from 19 February 2002.