By any measure, the National Party has been the most successful New Zealand political Party of recent times. After all, it has won 16 of the last 25 elections, governing for 47 years since first winning office in 1949, almost twice as long as the Labour Party has been in office in that time.
However, as it contemplates its future in the wake of its enormous defeat in this year’s election, it will not be nearly enough for National to just look to past glories as guiding its way to a return to power at some point in the future.
That was its immediate mistake during the last Parliament. For too long then, it acted like the bride jilted at the altar over what happened in 2017, assuming somewhat arrogantly that time would correct what it saw as a massive miscarriage of electoral justice. By the time it woke up to the new reality, Covid-19 had inflicted itself upon us, and the rest is history.
Now, finally, National has to confront some unpleasant realities. The comprehensive nature of its defeat goes beyond the impact of Covid-19, and it would be repeating the error of 2017-2020 if it were to assume its defeat was all due to the pandemic and conclude that it now merely has to bide its time and wait for the electoral pendulum to swing and restore it to office. It is a far more deep-seated issue than that, and National’s future depends on its coming to grips with that.
Indeed, what is remarkable about National’s historic successes is the rather flimsy philosophical basis on which the Party was established. It is more a tribute to good organisation, extraordinary pragmatism, and some remarkable personalities over a long period of time, rather than coherent core philosophy and principle that National has survived and been so successful.
National was formed in 1936 as a coming together of the old Reform and United Parties, and was a marriage of convenience at the time, rather than a philosophical union. What drew them together was more their joint opposition to the Labour Party which had been elected to government in the 1935 landslide, than any common ground on policy.
The Reform Party had been established in the early 20th century, primarily as the conservative response to Seddon’s Liberals, and the United Party, which grew out of the Liberals, was focused on attracting moderates on both the left and right of the political spectrum, who were concerned at the time about the rise of what they saw as the socialist Labour Party.
After the 1931 election, Reform and United came together to form an awkward coalition government, primarily to keep Labour out.
They failed manifestly to respond to the challenges of the Great Depression and were unceremoniously defeated in 1935. After that defeat, with just 19 seats between them in Parliament, both parties realised that neither would ever defeat Labour by themselves, hence their coming together in 1936 as the National Party we know today.
The challenge today
However, in today’s environment, just being the anti-Labour Party will not be enough anymore.
As the rise of ACT to National’s right has shown, voters are looking for something more specific, so National’s challenge, as it begins its review of its election drubbing, will be to spell out both a coherent philosophy and set of values about what the party actually stands for and then to develop and promote policies that give effect to those. Just being the anti-Labour party at a time when Labour’s stocks are at their highest in 80 years will not do it.
Rather, National needs to be looking to the lessons successful modern conservative parties elsewhere provide. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Germany, which has been in office since 1982 on a platform of liberal conservatism, is an obvious example. So too would be Britain’s Conservative Party under David Cameron (not its present leadership!). Cameron enunciated both social and economic liberalism, seeking to demonstrate sound economic policies, balanced by modern, liberal social policies.
National needs to realise, as Merkel and Cameron did, that modern conservative parties succeed when their policies, personalities and tone are in step with the aspirations of the mainstream of voters. This was the path National looked to be on under Sir John Key, but it seems to have wandered from that in recent years, leaving it looking directionless at present.
Labour’s election success demonstrated that it clearly and better understood where to pitch its message to maximise its political support. But with the newly re-elected government looking likely to become more incremental in its approach than the radical transformer it promised to be in 2017, there will be an increasing opportunity over the next few years for National to develop and spell out a coherent, modern liberal conservative alternative programme. If it fails to do so, it will not only remain out of office for a long time but find more and more of its ground on the right of the spectrum being eaten up by ACT.
Progressive elements absent
Progressive elements seem few and far between in the National Caucus elected last weekend.
The current Caucus has been left looking less like the face of contemporary New Zealand than any National Party Caucus in recent years, further compounding National’s problems.
Yet, without change and renewal that means the party that has dominated the New Zealand political landscape for most of the last 80 years will be set for a long and chilly time in the wilderness.
Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 2008 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.