A tender shrub in need of water on the roots

The reason the National party is not on the way to oblivion or even minor party status is that its roots go too deep and too wide. With water, fertiliser and judicious nurturing, it will recover. The real question is: what will it recover to?

Start with a simple proposition: that most voters are conservative with a small-c. They don’t want too much change and they don’t want danger.

In the 1950s voters settled for a conservative variant of the new social democracy, a variant which National, helped by a buoyant economy, soothingly supplied. National was rewarded with dominance of governments for half a century. Labour was left with cameo parts.

Right now there is every possibility — though not yet probability — voters will settle for a variant of the new free market and free living. Labour, helped by a buoyant economy, is soothingly supplying such a variant.

Labour hopes it will be rewarded with dominance of governments. It has made a strong start.

The Clark government has even neatly inverted the early experience of the Holland National government in the 1950s. That government ran into bumpy times and a fight with the unions when it modified some of Labour’s 1940s regulation. The Clark government ran into bumpy times and a fight with business when it modified some of National’s 1990s deregulation. The Holland government recovered speedily; Clark likewise.

National in the 1950s learned how to coopt from the other side; Labour likewise 50 years on. The deal with Peter Dunne’s bifocal group is the parliamentary embodiment.

Labour took half a century after 1949 to recover the pole position. In the early 1990s forecasts of its terminal decline were fashionable. Such forecasts now for National are also premature.

As Labour in the early 1990s, National is beset by scavengers. Labour had the Alliance and New Zealand First competing for its traditional vote. ACT, New Zealand First and United Future are competing for National’s traditional vote.

This is no more terminal for National, however, than it was for Labour. New Zealand First and United Future are leader-dependent. ACT is a flank party. None can supplant National unless National self-destructs.

Labour’s response in the early 1990s was to reframe policy to appeal to its core vote, form common electoral cause with the Alliance and then, in office, to reach out across the centre line.

National’s early response was all over the shop: one minute hardline deregulation to appeal to business, another “reaching out” to Maori, another promising higher health spending than Labour.

Recently it has frenetically chased every rabbit, from leaky homes to nuclear powered ships to migration to Maori seats on councils. “Look at me, look at me,” National is saying, wallflower-desperate for any dance.

MPs feel better because they are busy and are scoring some parliamentary points off the government, most notably their stun-gunning of George Hawkins. But there is no sign yet that this meal-in-a-minute menu has got the public salivating.

More relevantly, stand-in president Judy Kirk has been soothing party members, which is a precondition for root-nurturing. Change-agent president Michelle Boag and change-agent director-general Allan Johnston have gone. A reorganisation is under way, though whether it will produce an efficient fighting machine has yet to be seen.

Looming over this is Auckland business. Auckland business is the moneybags of politics and 20 years ago it was meshed with National. Now National trails Labour and ACT: Labour because business must deal with the government though it doesn’t much like it; ACT because business feels National has not been clear enough on business policy and it can’t work English out.

One way not to win back Auckland business is to bucket it, as Bill English did two weeks back, for not attacking the government. After Alexander Downer made a similar outburst during the Australian Liberal party’s doldrums, his leadership of that party was short-lived.

Curiously, English has also yet to do what Helen Clark did in the 1990s. She got into the provinces once or twice a week, patiently building contacts and winning low-level but eventually telling positive local media exposure. English, the Southlander with instinctive middle-New Zealand values, should be a cinch at that.

Nevertheless, he is speaking out more and trying to tie policy back to the principles he has laid out. And, though bumpily, he may be starting to get some focus around middle-New Zealand values touching on crime, home ownership and limits to Maori cultural brakes on property and the economy. National might just be on the way back.

Meantime, however, Clark has edged her prime ministership bit by bit into National’s old domain.

The consequence is clear. The longer National’s recovery is delayed, the more likely it will find that from here on it has the cameo parts in government, as Labour did after 1949. Dominance, once lost, is not readily recovered.