Some history lessons for eager election watchers

The wonder of this election is that National is in full contention after only 21 per cent last time. What does history say about its chances of going all the way?

Go back to 1928. That’s nearly 80 years ago but history doesn’t hang on decades.

In the 1910s and 1920s, despite running elections under first-past-the-post, this country had a multi-party system. In three elections after 1912, when Reform’s Bill Massey first won office by ousting the Liberals on a no-confidence motion after an inconclusive election in 1911, he only once won a decisive majority, in 1919.

In 1925 his successor, Gordon Coates, won a landslide 55 seats out of 80. The Liberals, renamed National, won only 12 seats and 24 per cent of the vote, if you include former Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward who still called himself Liberal. Labour, on the rise, was the official opposition.

In 1928 the Nationals changed name again to United, re-formed as a conservative party, acquired from Reform the services of A E Davy, a wily, innovative electoral organiser who brought with him Reform’s membership list, and reinstated as leader 70-year-old Ward who mistakenly promised heavy borrowing for public works — and, amazingly, returned to office.

It was not a pretty government. Four MPs won seats as independent Liberals and it depended on the acquiescence of Labour, regarded askance by the establishment in much the way the Greens are now. Within three years severe economic depression forced coalition with Reform.

United’s rise in vote share in 1928 was 11 per cent, counting in the four dissenters. (There is debate about the exact numbers: I take mine from Michael Bassett’s useful Three-party politics.)

Fast forward to the present. National’s 21 per cent party vote in 2002 was the lowest score for a major party in 100 years. But a more realistic measure of its actual support in 2002 is its 31 per cent electorate vote. Add 11 per cent to that and National would likely lead the next government.

Moreover, National has a leader freshly reconstituted from the Reserve Bank, gets smart tactical advice from Lynton Crosby, the Australian Liberals’ election guru, and is promising lavish tax cuts — all (faint) shades of United in 1928.

And Labour, seemingly impregnable as 2004 opened and strongly placed again at New Year this year, has let its advantage slip, just as Coates did in government.

But is 1928 the right parallel?

In 1969 Labour boasted a rumbustious, youngish leader, Norman Kirk and four rising well-educated youngish MPs (Sir Wallace Rowling, Bob Tizard, Warren Freer and Colin Moyle) whose “modern” thinking was a refreshing contrast with the previously dominant old-style unionists.

The public mood fluctuated leading up the election much as in these past few months. The sparse polls of the time suggested not far out from the election that Kirk might get over the line.

But in fact Labour was not quite ready. The modernisers and the old hands didn’t mesh well enough. Kirk was still only four years in the job and prone to occasional error. Sir Keith Holyoake edged back in. Kirk stormed to power in a landslide in 1972.

Similarly, in 1981 a Labour party that was only beginning the extraordinary transition to the transformational powerhouse it became in 1984 was pipped by Sir Robert Muldoon. David Lange stormed to power three years later.

Today’s National has recovered hugely under Don Brash. Membership, morale and money have soared. Organisation and campaigning have professionalised under general manager Steven Joyce. A rising cadre of youngish, modern liberal-conservatives, notably John Key, Bill English, Katherine Rich and Simon Power, sets the tone. It has reshaped policy.

In short, National has vitality and vigour that have been lacking for a quarter-century. It is definitely en route to government.

But when exactly?

History is a slippery guide: Coates was trying to win a sixth term for Reform in 1928, not a third as Helen Clark is for Labour; United was a flimsy construct whereas National is solid; television campaigning is lightyears from campaigning in 1969, let alone 1928; the economy is a bigger plus for Clark than Coates, Holyoake or Muldoon; the Treaty and political correctness were not even thought about, let alone negatives for the incumbent.

Nevertheless National evokes 1928 with its reports of a warmth of welcome from voters not felt since 1990, which attests to its having re-cemented its core vote and appeal to middle New Zealand. On the other hand, Labour is reporting its vote is holding, much as for governments in 1969 and 1981.

Take your pick. Or perhaps instead seek your cues in another set of parallels, bribe-rich elections: Labour’s thumping tax rebate in 1957 or Muldoon’s prodigious pension promise in 1975, for example (Both won but shed votes heavily at the next election.)

This year both spending and tax bribes are on offer: Labour’s louche student loan lure and National’s lush tax cuts. Choose your trough.