Floundering National puffs up small parties' importance

Over the next two weekends two important smaller parties will remind National activists how badly their party has bled.

New Zealand First will celebrate its rise from the dead this weekend. The next weekend United Future will meet in search of a party.

New Zealand First represents a strand of opinion — on immigration — that is at odds with the majority.

The party is for the moment parked impotently in opposition. But, come 2005, if it can hold its 2002 10 per cent, even a resurgent National could not form a government if New Zealand First is not in the equation.

To hold that vote, Winston Peters must get lots of media attention. These days, though a creature of the media himself, he calls journalists a “chemical impossibility: scum and dregs at the same time”. But that doesn’t stop him drinking with them late at night. He’ll get his coverage. Immigration will stay a live issue.

United Future is already in the government frame. It also represents, through some of its MPs, a strand of opinion at odds with the majority: moral conservatism. That, too, won’t go away.

It gives Peter Dunne’s intended centrist party a right colouring. But moral conservatism can align with traditional leftist social justice concerns: as late as the 1980s Labour had a large moral conservative wing.

Dunne insists he has a liberal party — that is, one tolerant of diversity. So far he has pretty much kept the moral conservatism confined to personal expressions by individual MPs.

His immediate concern, however, is to create a party worthy of its parliamentary presence. President Inky Tulloch is working to build a branch structure. He and Dunne want next weekend to deflate fantasies among the faithful of a soaring God-given vote in 2005.

United Future’s role for now is as a pivot, this term (and very likely post-2005) with Labour but potentially one day with National. If United Future can hold 4 per cent or more, it is likely no National-led government can be formed without it in the equation.

But these calculations assume National can recover enough votes to validate major party status. That is not pre-ordained. Some in the party think it could go as low as 15 per cent.

And, while most are horrified by that spectre, some would find it comfortable. Policies could be purified for a niche. Dissent and debate could be contained. In fact some of today’s senior Labour ministers mused on a niche social democratic party in the mid-1990s when their party was on its knees.

Bill English thinks differently. He has been touting round small meetings of activists a set of principles predicated on National being “a mainstream party”.

That implies a party encompassing a range of opinions based loosely on some commonly agreed tenets. And that implies disagreements and even personal animosities, not a cosy conversazione.

English’s nominated principles are: private enterprise; personal responsibility; freedom and choice; limits on government; one sovereignty and one standard of citizenship; strong families and communities; national and personal security.

Note “private”, not “free”, enterprise. “Free” is ACT and was National in the 1990s. Even so, some activists fear “private enterprise” would perpetuate the 1990s branding. For the same reason they suspect “freedom”. (Yet Sir Keith Holyoake would start 1960s campaign speeches with: “Fellow freedom fighters.”) Moderate conservatives also want an active government, not just a limited one.

On the other side of the coin, there is some unease with “families”, as out of synch with a much divorced society. English’s answer: if National doesn’t claim “families” there is a risk Labour will, with Dunne.

Do his principles sound like National? Yes. Are they unmistakably right of centre? Yes. Do they distinguish National from New Zealand First, United Future and ACT on the right? Yes, by being broad spectrum.

English is good at that part of his leadership.

But it is swamped by his gaffes when he goes attention-seeking. Last week’s crop of three included pulling the SAS out of Afghanistan, surely a sacking offence for the person who made the mistake.

It is this fumbling side of his leadership that makes this month’s conferences important. They remind voters of other options.