National at 80 — on top, flush and set to celebrate

On Saturday National turns 80 — in power, flush with funds, as chipper as it has ever been. How will it be at 100?

One answer National will hope for is: not like Labour at 100, which Labour will be on July 7 and will commemorate the following weekend, including with a new history of the party.

Labour has been in office 35 of its 100 years, a little over one-third.

National has been in office 45 years, more than half of its 80.

One building block has been a broad membership, a cross-section of much of society.

This has not made National literally a “national party”. It has been overweighted with farmers, businesspeople and professionals and the better off. It has been a white party with flecks of colour.

Nevertheless, for most of its 80 years it has, much more than Labour, been a part of the communities it lives in (to use Grant Robertson’s mournful phrase just after the 2014 election, when Labour’s 25% showed it clearly wasn’t).

Of course, National connects with and is funded by the well-off. But it also connects with middling voters who bother about the mortgage and the kids’ schooling and the next car and don’t want too much change or too much attention to beneficiaries and others outside the mainstream.

And National’s flecks of colour have grown a bit. It has active “community” groups of Indian and Chinese (and more Asian MPs than Labour) and a growing Pasifika group. It has challenged Labour in numbers of MPs with Maori whakapapa.

At its strongest — in the 1950s-60s and from 2006 on — National has married a moderate liberalism to a moderate conservatism. John Key and Bill English epitomise that at the top now.

And in those strong periods the “art of the possible” principle of practical politics has moderated wilder instincts. “Steady does it,” 1960s Prime Minister Sir Keith Holyoake put it.

That doesn’t mean doing nothing: the liberal reforms of the 1960s and the social investment reforms of the 2010s have been significant, for example But it took the middling voters along with the reforms. English called that “incremental radicalism” last year.

But there have been times when this hasn’t worked.

At its birth in 1936 National was far adrift of public opinion. Deep social change coupled with, and in part driven by, deep economic recession required deep reform. That was beyond the capacity of the two parties from which National was formed.

Similarly, National could not respond with deep reform to match the deep social change in the late 1970s and early 1980s, driven by the rising baby-boom generation and economic stagnation.

In both cases Labour supplied the deep policy reform. In the 1940s National responded by accepting those reforms and managing the new status quo. In the early 1990s it responded with out-of-character radicalism of its own, which splintered the party and bled support.

Ironically it was Helen Clark’s “third way” Labour which made the 1980s-90s reforms a new status quo. Only when Key and English took over did National regain equilibrium.

We are in, or at least entering, another deep social change, logically requiring deep policy change. How National responds will be a major determinant of how it will look on its 100 birthday in 2036.

National is not in the fractious state of its counterparts in other liberal democracies, especially the United States.

That in part is because the social pressures that have generated the populist upheavals in Europe and the United States are not (yet) as intense here and such populism as there is mostly mopped up by Winston Peters who parks it more or less safely.

Other could-be populists gravitate to Key-the-bloke coupled with Key-the-nice-chap and with Key-the-silken-tongue — at a guess accounting for somewhere north of 5 percentage points of National’s 2011 and 2014 47%. When Key goes, that will go with him.

In any case populist responses are counterproductive. National’s populist Sir Robert Muldoon demonstrated that with his response to deepening social change in 1975-84.

The history of that period and of the 1930s suggests the constructive alternative, deep policy change, will have to come, if it comes, from some party other than National.

Right now only Labour and the Greens are on offer but they are not yet a substantive, unified force and Labour has yet to develop a deep reform programme.

So for now, there is political space and time for English to wave his calming wand in the May 26 budget.

There will be some lollies and a bit more social investment and some filling of political potholes and a soothing assurance that government finances are headed towards a surplus and debt reduction.

This is the art of the possible. Done well, it leaves little room for opponents to score scarring points, even given third-term wear-and-tear and the growing number of bad stories.

So National can celebrate its 80th in calm times.

And if the next bout of deep policy reform is over by National’s 90th or thereabouts, it should be able to celebrate its 100th.