National's highs and complex lows

National is the usual party of government. Since its first win in 1949 it has been in office 42 of 63 years — two-thirds of the time.

Moreover, there is reason to hope for four years more. The annual conference this month will be buoyed by polling averaging 45 per cent-plus. Ministers have been delivering business-friendly policy with vigour.

But in the history lurks a warning: National’s vote share since 1949 has averaged only 1.3 per cent higher than Labour’s.

National’s predominance during the first-past-the-post period was in part because it had fewer votes stacked up in safe seats than Labour, so it got more of a seat for each vote. That delivered governing majorities in 1978 and 1981 even though Labour got more votes.

Under MMP the calculation is very different.

By election time in 2014 National and Labour will have had nine years each in office under MMP.

To take that to 12-9 in a third term, National has to fix its fraying support.

In 2011 ACT and United Future each kept a seat only because National persuaded enough of its voters to vote for them. Even then, the peculiarities of the St Lague system of apportioning list seats means only one of the two actually added a seat to National’s tally. Had neither of them been there, National would have had one more list seat.

Peter Dunne’s embarrassments over his email blitz with Andrea Vance make him an unlikely candidate next year and even more unlikely to be indulged by National voters. John Banks’ antics over Kim Dotcom’s donations to his 2010 mayoral campaign probably wipes him in Epsom, which is why ACT insiders want young David Seymour instead, if they can retire Banks. (Actually, National’s Epsom candidate, Paul Goldsmith, is ideologically more ACT than ex-National Banks.)

At least one of the Maori party’s three seats is vulnerable, not just because of weak membership and its split with Hone Harawira’s Mana party but because (as Labour and Mana point out) it is seen as positioned alongside National on mainstream socioeconomic issues. In 2011 Labour got four times as many party votes as National in Maori seats.

If National is relying on its existing support parties in 2014, even repeating its 2011 vote of 47.3 per cent would miss a majority unless New Zealand First bombed out. National cannot expect 47 per cent when Labour is recovering and the Greens are still strong. Even 2008’s 45 per cent is a big ask.

Moreover, the Maori party has voted against much of National’s policy thrust and its retiring co-leaders have not made a convincing case of their wins for Maori. The value to National has been the transfer of some votes National cannot win itself. They are not soulmates.

That pushes National towards Colin Craig’s Conservatives and towards Winston Peters if he clears 5 per cent.

Craig could be given a carefully chosen safe National seat where National voters could be persuaded to vote for him. He is a moral conservative and opposes asset sales. But he would be manageable if the Conservatives have, say, three seats. Helen Clark’s management of Dunne’s Christians in 2002-05 is a pointer.

To get Peters, John Key would have to smooch away Peters’ deep resentment at Key’s denigration of him in 2008. And some concessions would be needed to Peters’ economic and demographic nationalism.

The danger in such deals is that National could irritate its rank and file, as happened after 1996 when Jim Bolger shacked up with Peters. Demands to be “blue” not “gray” got Bolger sacked, then Peters. There might be fertile territory for agitators like far-right-winger Simon Lusk who wants an ACT-like National and has mentored some MPs.

Put all that together. National’s conference has cause to celebrate an in-charge, policy-friendly, high-polling government. But take away the celebration tinsel and there is not much sparkle.