What happens in the National party, now that it is at 21 per cent?
First off, it would probably help to slaughter a sacrificial lamb — or mutton, as the case may be.
Michelle Boag was until the campaign a plus: an attraction for better candidates, a catalyst for renewal of electorate chairs, the party’s engineroom, and a sharpener of the organisation.
But a one-tick (electorate) campaign in the third MMP election? Advertising and an opening video that treated the viewer as bystander? Disorganisation on the leader’s trail from the launch on?
OK, sacrifice over, what then? Sacrifices are to propitiate the gods, not get the goods.
First, the party needs to be real about its election result. This is in two parts.
Part one: the electorate didn’t make a mistake when it threw National out of office in 1999. It had been looking for an alternative since 1991. It was definite about its decision on July 27. National’s average vote in the 1990s was 33 per cent. That is not a long-run governing party’s score.
Part two: National’s real base support is probably nearer the 31 per cent it got in the electorate vote than the 21 per cent it got in the party vote. That is something to build on.
Next, the party needs to decide what it wants voters to think it stands for.
Being in power in the 1990s obscured that need. But it is not in power now and won’t be unless luck intervenes or it repositions and re-presents itself.
In the 1950s and 1960s it was, in 1972 Prime Minister Sir John Marshall’s words, “liberal-conservative”, very mildly reforming an orderly society.
Sir Robert Muldoon in the late 1970s declared it the party of the “ordinary bloke”. Populism ruled — but not OK.
Then Ruth Richardson made it radical and neoliberal, the party of doctrine and disruptive reform.
Jim Bolger tried for a “decent society”, then “social capital”. Jenny Shipley reverted to neoliberalism.
Bill English has in the past talked of a “new conservatism”. When you get to the detail, it sounds much like Marshall’s liberal-conservatism, updated.
In the wake of all that voters are either confused about, or despairing of, or indifferent to, what National stands for. That is no basis for a return to 35 or 40 per cent in 2005 — especially since Helen Clark has established a sharp image for her party.
Having defined its position, National then needs to work out how flesh it out into policy.
It is short of innovative talent among its MPs and the voters half-thwarted Boag’s play for new blood. A hotchpotch masqueraded as policy at the election. And the architects of that hotchpotch were the people who gave National its 1990s 33 per cent average.
Since that is the case, the party brass needs to find a way to work with outside talent. There have been several half-hearted — no, quarter-hearted — attempts to do this in the past. But the 33-per-centers kept and played the cards.
Guy Salmon and Allan Peachey could be a nucleus for a wider-reaching brains trust.
But, and this is last and painful point, National needs leadership. English was on the campaign committee. He must share blame for the campaign blunders.
English has guts, only underlined by backroom blubbing on election night. He is very personable. He is deeply thoughtful and insightful and has got the nearest of any National MP to a message that can work in the 2000s. Time has been too short to get that out.
But there are buts. And they are big buts.
He doesn’t look the part. On the road he was still a willing lad — attractive in a way but not a Prime Minister. Wife Mary looks the part. He could start by learning from her. Just sticking his jaw out is not authority.
If he stays leader, the reprogramming will need to start pronto. If Clark could do it in 1996, against the grain, so can he.
Next he needs to swot. A lot. Six in the morning till midnight — for many months. The kids lose a father for a time. The party gets a leader who knows what he is talking about. On too much policy English is captive to speechwriters or trapped in his 1990s 33-per-center mates’ sound-bites.
A party that wants back in the big league next election, with a sound result, not just a fortuitous one, will give him 18 months. After all, he’s been apprentice for 12 years already.