The same but different: that’s what voters want. But what they want to stay the same and what they want to be different varies from voter to voter — and from generation to generation.
These contradictory wants don’t bother small parties. A small party’s aim is to make a difference: a particular difference or differences. It is in Parliament not to manage the state but to prod policy down a liberty (ACT) or family (United Future) or oldies (New Zealand First) or green (Greens) or brown (Maori party) track.
A large party’s aim is to manage the state, with a lean towards the party’s core beliefs and the interests of its special support groups. Moreover, unlike small parties which can aspire at most to 10 per cent of the vote, large parties which want to lead government must get 35-45 per cent of the vote.
Such a large vote contains by definition many of the contradictory same-but-different hopes and angers: core voters and support groups, returning strays, converts from small parties and from the other big party.
For National this year the most important target is converts from Labour: particularly liberal voters who in 2005 feared Don Brash. Generally, National is seeking centrist voters who can swing either way.
By definition centrist voters don’t want big change. But to switch their votes requires either disappointment with the party they backed last time and/or comfort that the party they are moving to is in tune with their preferences.
Helen Clark in 1999 didn’t promise a big change of direction. She proposed a “correction”, a term drawn from market-speak to suggest a drawing back from an extreme position.
With 38 per cent of the vote in 1996 held either by Labour or the Alliance –which by 1999 was in alliance with Labour — the core vote was secured. Clark’s need was to reach across the divide, filch voters from National and its allies.
By and large a “correction” is what she delivered. Labour’s vote grew in 2002 and held steady in 2005. National in 2005 reassembled its core vote but could not convert enough other voters from Labour or small parties to cross the line to the Treasury benches.
John Key has correctly identified that he needs some of Labour’s 2005 votes to win. The polls tell him he is on target.
And he has pitched his slogan exactly right: a “fresh start”.
A fresh start is not a change of direction. Key has made clear that is not what he is proposing by adopting Labour policies wholesale — even climate change, the nuclear policy and student loans.
There are points of difference — law and order for young people was first off the rank in January — but they are not major changes of direction: much of the youth law and order policy was refurbishment of existing programmes.
To make a fresh start is to inject fresh energy into the existing policy direction — with changes of emphases and maybe some veering but not a reversal or detour.
The good news for National is that Key both looks and sounds like a fresh start. This is in two senses and both are important.
One is that he is still a new face, only six years in Parliament. Contrast that with Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s 27 years, Annette King’s 23 and Pete Hodgson’s and Lianne Dalziel’s 17.
Key hasn’t been in government, so doesn’t have a government scorecard with black marks on it — and, while deputy Bill English and several front benchers do have such a scorecard, a raft of increasingly visible up-and-comers, notably Simon Power, Katherine Rich, Judith Collins, Tim Groser and Chris Finlayson, don’t.
And Key, at 46 to Clark’s 57, is a different political generation.
Key’s generation did not learn its trade in the arguments over Vietnam war, Springbok tours, nuclear ships, abortion, homosexual law reform and economic deregulation, as Clark’s did. The positions Clark’s cohort occupied in those arguments limit its policy flexibility and harden the policy arteries.
For Key and English — and for the more than half the voters who are their age or younger — those arguments were essentially settled by the time they reached Parliament.
The politics of Key and English and their cohort are shaped by different arguments, “fresh” arguments compared with those of the Clark cohort. That enables them credibly, or at least plausibly, to offer a “fresh start”. They can, in short, be the same but different.