New Zealand politics is suddenly interesting! I don’t have time to write about a tenth of the things that are happening – but I think one of the reasons it’s suddenly so watchable is that the long-term outlook for New Zealand politics is totally opaque.
Things have been pretty predictable for the last six years. For most of their third term it was obvious Labour was doomed, and National was guaranteed a second term, and only the incidental outcomes were really in doubt: what would happen to ACT, the Mana Party, the Labour leadership etc.
But the outcome of the 2014 election is shrouded in uncertainty. So I thought I’d write a little about where I see the parties as they currently stand.
National: If they have many more weeks like this last one then it’s hard to see them ending the year on >40% support. If the economic situation worsens considerably then it may be lower. A huge part of Key’s popularity stems from his image as a business guru who can ‘fix’ the domestic economy. If we get to the end of the second term and find ourselves worse than where we started, with only a succession of sweetheart deals benefiting various international corporations to show for it, I think he’ll be unelectable, and his legacy will be one of failure and wasted opportunity.
So assuming he loses support, where will it go?
ACT:One of National’s challenges this term is to rebuild their Potemkin party to attract votes off the Conservatives and New Zealand First. Maybe they’ll cut a deal with Colin Craig in which he retires his party in 2014. There’s around 2.5% right there. But Winston Peters is an amazing opposition MP, so I doubt he’ll lose many votes to a minority party in government.
The challenge will be to attract conservative/red neck votes while still maintaining the ACT Party activist/funding base of libertarians, and prevent the launch of a new liberal party that could lead to more wasted votes. I think most votes to ACT will come from National. Which would be fine – they’re functionally the same party, after all – if National could occupy ‘the center’, and prevent losing too many votes to Labour.
Labour: Their new leader David Shearer is a huge source of uncertainty in trying to predict medium-term outcomes. I was optimistic when he was elected. Now I’m less enthused. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I have no idea what Shearer stands for, or what his goals as leader are. His statements have been awful vague, along the lines of: ‘what we have to do is figure out how to figure out what we have to do’. Some measure of introspection is fine, but this doesn’t scream, ‘leadership’. And it wasn’t reassuring to read this column by Vernon Small:
[Shearer's] Christmas non-fiction reading included Mr Blair’s biography and the writings of Philip Gould, Baron Gould of Brookwood if you please, who died late last year.
Gould’s 1998 book The Unfinished Revolution – how the modernisers saved the Labour Party was the strategy bible penned by the man who was a key adviser and pollster to UK Labour in the general elections of 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005.
Mr Shearer himself does not shy away from the parallels.
He freely admits he is not ideological Labour. Like Mr Blair he is keen to set aside the road blocks to a return to power. His guiding mantra “whatever works” flatters John Key with imitation.
Blair? Gould? It’s a little like those US army officers who went into Vietnam boasting about their mastery of the theory of tank warfare.
Labour’s policies, (nominal) values and political positioning make it the natural beneficiary of a National Party decline. But it still suffers from the character problem of its MPs, many of who are unlikeable, untrustworthy people who the public doesn’t want to vote for (do I really need to cite a recent example of this?) If they have a successful leader and some party discipline then that problem diminishes, but we have yet to see any indication that Shearer can fill that role. To me he’s starting to look like a character from The Wire: someone trying to reform a dysfunctional organisation, but reliant on the support and patronage of the people responsible for the dysfunction.
The Greens: Is Labour a dying party slowly being replaced by the Greens, or is the Green Party currently at the peak of their success? What percentage of the electorate are ‘persuadable’ Green voters? They did manage to increase their vote in 2012 even though they appeal to younger voters, who turned out in abysmally low numbers, which they must find encouraging. Another odd thing about the Greens: they increased their party vote by moving to the center, which then bought in several MPs who are on the left of the party.
One possible outcome of the current trends is that we eventually see a left-wing coalition that’s actually a coalition. A Greens ~20%, Labour ~30% government would be completely different from anything we’ve seen under MMP so far.
New Zealand First: I think I’ve mentioned this before: I think of Winston Peters as analogous to the Mule from Asimov’s Foundation. He’s completely unpredictable. Will he function as a high performing opposition MP? Will he conjure some Winebox-style conspiracy that bewilders the country for months or years? Will he engage in a pointless, destructive war with the media? Will he retire at the end of this term?
The only thing I’m really sure about is an irreversible decline in Key’s popularity. But what fills that vacuum?