You can forgive Bill English a little schadenfreude this coming weekend as he walks the floor at the National party ‘s conference. He will be among friends basking in National’s high polling and Labour’s travails. It’s nine years on from 2002.
That election destroyed English’s leadership of National, just as this coming election menaces Phil Goff’s of Labour. Politics is unforgiving.
And nine years from now? Not many this weekend will fixate on that. Politics is transitory.
And transitions can be sharp. Three weeks from the 2002 election Labour was averaging 52 per cent in polls. At the election it got 42 per cent. On the reverse side of that ledger Labour went from an 18 per cent poll average six weeks from the 1996 election to 28 per cent on the day.
That history might be useful to bids by John Key and president Peter Goodfellow to bring delegates down from seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations on Saturday night to somewhere near ground level.
For the public the conference programme amounts to a mind-numbing parade of Powerpoint-ministers and dutiful question times. More of this conference is open to the media than last year’s disgrace to democracy but there is no room for contention. Open debate is deemed dangerous. Last year Key lectured delegates who questioned the lockdown: media meddlers would whip the wispiest whiff of difference into splits and divisions.
That is lightyears from the political planet on which at a conference four decades ago Young Nationals promoted a remit to decriminalise homosexuality — a decade and a-half before Fran Wilde’s bill. Vigour has vaporised into vapidity.
In short — failing the unexpected, always possible in politics — this conference will be a stage in the stage management of National’s glide to a second term. Standing aside in Epsom, Ohariu and the seven Maori electorates to buttress support parties and refusing to debate other small parties on television is in that nothing-left-to-chance vein.
Contrast National’s management in its 1950s-60s heyday. Then it operated through a huge membership that spread a wide and deep web through society. Messages of policy hopes and needs flowed up through that web and messages of government action and rationale flowed down.
National was in that sense very representative — as close as any party has been (since Reform from 1912-28) to being the normal party of government.
Now it has to settle for being at most the more-often-than-not party of government: 20 of the 25 years after first taking office in 1949 but only 12 of the past 25 and needing a second term to regain a quarter-century majority.
Politics is now more fluid, requiring both continuous attention to eddies of public opinion to assemble and hold a majority and (while MMP lasts) flexibility to accommodate some of support parties’ programmes plus supple management to keep those parties viable and so maintain a majority.
Having an attractive, accessible leader helps a lot. But a leader is one ingredient and attractiveness can atrophy. The party needs deep roots. It needs to be its own wide focus group and able confidently to debate the range of disparate and at times fractious views to be found in the half of the electorate it needs on its side.
It is not obvious John Key’s National party, frightened that some sliver of disputation might run wild in the media, can do that. That makes it vulnerable. Voters will eventually seek substance under the sheen, a sense that the party’s leadership is not just a skilful pragmatic follower of focus-group fashion but takes, communicates and acts on a long view of policy and management options and is embedded in and part of society.
English has that. He knows the party — is the party. He knows politics and its deep traditions. He is sceptical of faddish ideas and is often a crusty conservative but also thinks outside the National box. He links portfolios and makes major joint announcements alongside ministers as diverse as Nick Smith, Paula Bennett and Pita Sharples.
Key meanwhile pops into India and is featured kissing Bronagh at the Taj Mahal, ogling Bollywood actresses and playing at cricket (oh, and he also saw the Prime Minister). He presents himself too often as lacking gravitas.
There is another, evolving Key. Last week he told a gathering that capital formation and investment are far more important to economic growth and transformation than microeconomic reform, which, he said, works at the margin.
That will not endear him to Don Brash, who might therefore be a problem post-election. But it encapsulates this heavily indebted economy’s foundation weakness which is much of the reason for the large wage deficit with Australia. And it is long-game position.
This is the serious Key National needs on show this weekend if it is to embed itself as the more-often-than-not party of government. That requires, too, that National comes out of hiding and reaches into society. Labour and the Greens are not dead.