Within a week of each other in late January Bill English and Don Brash made speeches moving National sharply rightwards in Maori policy and economic and social policy. Is this the way to rebuild the right?
The logic was compelling: first, reconnect with the core vote; only then turn to contesting the centre.
Helen Clark did that for Labour in the mid-1990s. Like English, it took her some time to engage gear. Then in her keynote at the 1995 party conference she laid out her take on what Labour stood for.
It was a step to the left and launched the healing of the awful breach the 1980s deregulation had torn in the Labour fabric. She didn’t move far and large numbers of Labour people went with the Alliance and New Zealand First in 1996. Not until she had been Prime Minister for 18 months could it be said Labour had reconnected safely with its core vote.
National is not in exactly the same position. But there are enough similarities for it to study and emulate the Clark manoeuvre.
Last election the right split four ways and cut National’s vote to ribbons. ACT peeled off the “more-market” people and was tougher on crime. New Zealand First peeled off the “one-nation” people. United Future peeled off those for whom “family” counted top.
The great majority of those would once have thought themselves Nationalists — that is, part of National’s core vote.
Of course, some of the peel-off was not ideological but tactical, to influence or halter Labour in government. But, even allowing for that, National bled core voters to the three smaller parties.
The lesson is very simple: get them back. Pitching to the centre now would invite voters in 2005 to solidify their 2002 alternative choices.
The lesson was slow to get through. And then it took English months to lay the foundations with a restatement of base principles — 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.
These are not exactly earth-shattering. Most mainstream Nationalists could recite such a list in their sleep.
But it depends how it is used, what the tone is. Early indications are that English hasn’t got the tone right.
Remember, Clark shifted only moderately leftwards. English is shifting sharply rightwards. A year ago he was reaching out to Maori, for example. Now he is banging the “one-nation” drum.
Of course, Clark had the advantage of being thought “left” anyway, which carried her a greater distance in the public imagination than her words justified. English is thought “centrist” so has to make a bigger noise to sound “right” in the public imagination.
This is not as big a difference as it seems, however. Brash is unmistakably “right” in the public imagination. So there is a risk English may overcompensate for his centrism.
Let’s say National does win back some “more-market”, “one-nation” and “family” core Nationalists. If that is the result of a shrill “right” tone, most re-converts will come from ACT, New Zealand First and United Future.
So the total vote on the right might not go up at all. It might merely reshuffle itself from the smaller parties back to National. A strong Brash-ite tone might block National out from the centre. Labour could end up in 2005, even if United Future is smaller, with a similar two-way majority to the one it has now.
But wouldn’t the “one-nation” line on the Treaty of Waitangi attract some vote across from Labour? Quite probably, though not necessarily if the government starts putting boundary pegs in concessions to Maori as is likely.
Go back to 1999. Richard Prebble positioned ACT as hardline anti-Treaty. It worked a treat — until Rodney Hide reminded those “one-nation” voters ACT would sell the Post Office.
Brash would too. So he might well be a Hide to English’s Prebble. That would risk emulating the British Tories, who ended up in the margin after moving right in a desperate attempt to differentiate from centre-hogging Tony Blair.
National might avoid this if (with help from a slower economy) it compresses its reconnection into 2003 and 2004, giving it time to turn to the centre in 2005.
That reckons without one factor: that Clark has been cannily redefining the centre and wooing it since 2000. But for a divided and uncertain right it might well be worth the gamble — and meanwhile is good for morale.