Putting the small n back in the National party

What does National need to do before the next election? Put the small “n” back in National.

That is, it must look, smell, feel, sound and act like a party representative of the nation — as it was in its halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s.

At National party conferences these days you count the Maori there in single digits; so, too, for Pacific islanders and other ethnic minorities.

There are able women present but far fewer than at Labour’s shows. National’s election tally had a huge deficit among women. Don Brash’s China doll statement about Helen Clark after an election debate lost votes, according to internal party polling at the time.

Consequently, Brash’s claim to be speaking for the “mainstream” rang hollow — especially after he said Labour voters were not mainstream and there turned out to be more Labour than National voters.

“Mainstream” as an electoral device is exclusive, not inclusive. It aims to ghetto the opposition as too matey with people a majority think are “not like us”.

The same goes for “political correctness eradication” — for all that it targets a genuine Labour weak point. Moreover, it runs the same risk with “mainstream” of backfiring — as when deposed health spokesperson Paul Hutchison urged government action on a report on access to public transport for the disabled put out by the Human Rights Commission, which “eradicator” Wayne Mapp had just targeted for cleansing.

Mapp, a decent, if sometimes quaint chap — his website invites you to peruse a newsletter dated “01th July 2005” — had identified that very problem in his thoughtful J R Hanan lecture on the topic. He said the correct response to the Human Rights and Privacy Commissioners’ and Waitangi tribunal’s “politically correct” expansion of their adjudicative role into advocacy — and thereby, he thought, attacking free speech — was not to do the opposite. Minorities must be respected, not attacked.

But actually “the opposite” is what “eradication” will do. Mapp’s subtleties will get lost in the hubbub if he carries out his brief to the letter.

And that won’t put the small “n” back in National. National needs to include more people, not exclude them, if it is to build the basis for long-run government. While the word “inclusive” has acquired in some quarters politically correct connotations, it accurately describes National at its zenith. Since the wild rides to left and right with Sir Robert Muldoon and Ruth Richardson, however, it has lost the secret.

Brash’s job as leader now is to recover that secret.

His awkward combination of market-liberal personal leanings (bringing back National deserters) and populist campaigning (winning some from Labour) served National exceptionally in its recovery from the disaster of 2002.

But to win more voters from Labour he must find ways to understand women and minorities and include them in a national political movement.

And that means reincarnating the young Brash: the swot. A senior colleague worries that he lived too long in the narrow world of the monetary economist, which even some rightwing general economists think rarified.

Nandor Tanczos put his finger on the gap in Brash’s politics when he said that just by being in Parliament and surrounded with information, an MP picks up a surprising amount of background. Brash hasn’t given himself time to do that. He now has that time. And he can learn.

Also missing from Brash’s pre-election world was breadth. He put himself — arguably because he had little choice — in the hands of what he described on October 9, when chief of staff Richard Long left, as a “very small team”.

Brash said that team had “brought National to the brink of electoral success”. Correct. But National’s biggest rise in vote share was in its strong city seats. And the populist attacks and pitches to self-interest — tax cuts sold as lollies, not as promoting economic efficiency — had only limited success wooing voters from Labour.

Brash looks gauche as a populist because he isn’t one. But he is still trying. Announcing his portfolio lineup he emphasised “attack”.

Attack is part of opposition. But long-run government is built on redefining and commanding a very broad centre. Helen Clark understands that, though last term she drifted off-message.

And to command the centre he needs outreach, not exclusion. National’s centre would be rather small if short on women (post feminism) and scant on brown people (in a browning society).

A centrist claim can be fashioned in office. But it is much easier in the shadows of opposition. Clark’s door to the centre was opened by voters’ desire for a “correction” to the 1980s-90s reforms, which she provided.

Fortunately for National there are centrist frontbenchers who know politics’ complexities and the criticality of outreach: quick-learner John Key and Hanan-ish Bill English pre-eminently but also Katherine Rich, Simon Power and Judith Collins.

They are the national National party. Brash can be, too.