The purpose of being in power

What gets National party people out of bed in the morning? Power. Other parties have a purpose for power. For National the purpose is power.

That focus is a reason why National is in power more often than Labour. Since the two first went head to head in 1936, National will have been in office 40 years by 2011 and Labour 35 years. If National wins a second term in 2011 it will in the half-century to 2014 have beaten Labour 32-18.

John Key understood the rules in the 2008 election. He called himself centrist and differentiated National from Labour only on focus-group-safe issues.

Only this year has Key begun to call himself centre-right and edge into more differential policy. Even so, caution prevails. The budget’s modest constraints and large deficits in the interests of tiding the country through the recession reflected that caution.

Some in the party will chafe. But when its annual conference convenes in Christchurch at the end of this month, the fact of power will buoy the mood.

The conference will celebrate Key. He led them back home. The public likes him. He has made their party popular. Through his “inclusive” style, coopting parties, individuals of widely varying stripes and groups from widely varied stations in life, he has remade National as small-n national.

That evokes the halcyon first two decades of the second half of the twentieth century when National was a mix of moderate liberals and moderate conservatives. Key presents moderate liberalism and Bill English moderate conservatism.

Sir Robert Muldoon’s aberrant populism and Ruth Richardson’s ideology-driven economic policies are now in the mists of history, veiled behind the gauze of Helen Clark’s nine years.

Conference delegates will delight in this return to roots. They will not need to propose, still less to pass, jarring remits, as they did in the late Holyoake years and the Muldoon years. Power and popularity tranquilise the disaffected.

But once they have bathed in Key’s light and basked in power, what then?

National’s small-n-nationalness is thin and fragile. It has wide reach in the suburbs and the provinces — which are Labour’s big challenges. But its links into, and hold on, brown and new New Zealand are tenuous.

National banks on being able to genetically engineer its deal with the Maori party into something like the old Labour-Ratana alliance — Maori votes and members by proxy. Very few Maori will be at its conference. Given the demographic trends, it needs a structural Maori component that reaches beyond its class-based affinity with rangatira and its informal (though probably growing) Maori support in general electorates.

Key’s “relational” style, which soothes and flatters, is likely to reseal the Maori party deal after the 2011 election. But if Labour can breathe life into its still extensive networks and exploit in policy the fact that most Maori are in lower socioeconomic strata, being shacked up with National could be electorally expensive for the Maori party and leave National without that proxy vote.

Similarly, National’s reach into some of the Asian ethnic groups has yet to solidify. In 2008 newer Asian migrants’ social conservatism and small-business mentality took them Nationalwards and broke Labour’s “ethnic” primacy. But Labour is reworking its connections. Some of National’s ethnic MPs have a tokenistic sheen.

Then there is the future economy. National’s economic approach, for all that Richardson’s policy initiatives are now history, is conventional. While the Blue Greens are growing in numbers and influence, National’s environmental and climate change refrains are more lip-synched than full-throated.

Much will depend on the degree to which younger MPs and party members change that over this term and next. Labour, while closer to the Green party (which is itself beginning to adapt its thinking to modern imperatives), does not have a lien on mainstream voters with an environmental lean. But that gives National no more than an opening. Few yet get the potential in green economics.

National also needs, as does Labour, to modernise its electioneering. Barack Obama’s cyber-based campaigning set a new mould in 2008. Can National, once dominant on the doorstep, foot it on the web?

And there is the recession and higher unemployment and the crunch on household finances and balance sheets to get through.

For a time Key and English have the advantage of newness and so a public tolerance of sterner budgeting. But that advantage will wear off if households stay strapped too long. Power is purpose. It is also a target.