National’s ‘identity crisis’ in opposition

After nine years in Government Labour went through a number of identity crises in opposition until a last minute gamble by Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern pulled victory out of what looked like inevitable defeat.

I followed The Standard during this period and there were many ructions and arguments over Labour’s identity.

So now it is the National Party’s turn to adjust to the shock of demotion into the mainly impotent role of Opposition. And the complaints are coming persistently from Kiwiblog and Whale Oil about what National stands for, or should stand for now. And the Leader of the Opposition (currently Simon Bridges) is also under increasing scrutiny and criticism as he hasn’t restored National to power already.

Opposition is a good time to re-evaluate what a party stands for, now (not a hundred years ago).

Thomas Coughlan asks Who is the National Party?

It takes a while for opposition parties to adjust to the murk and plotting of Parliament, after becoming used to the lofty glow of government. Labour’s memories of instability and plotting are fresh, National’s aren’t.

Understandably, Labour views National’s ructions through the lens of its own knotty history. It sees the choice in fairly blunt terms: Bridges is the Phil Goff leader – an obvious successor to the previous, popular government, but unlikely to embody the change needed to get the party over the line come election.

Collins is the David Cunliffe candidate: madly popular with the party base, but polarising to the political centre who would likely migrate left if the National party pivoted right.

From Labour’s experience, National’s rightward drift seems inevitable; it’s an obvious and natural response to the identity crisis of opposition.

So what is National’s response?

The question of what to do about the base is squarely in National’s court.  Unlike Labour, members have no role in selecting their leader: it’s all caucus.

National operates as a representative democracy party, where MPs theoretically represent the wishes and preferences of their members.

There’s benefit to that. Members don’t like to hear it but professional politicians often know what they’re doing when it comes to what works and what doesn’t. Their livelihoods depend on it and the best spend more time travelling the country, hearing diverse points of view not just listening to party bases, which can get stuck in a narrow political bubble.

But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the base either. Especially in opposition. Come election, the base knocks on doors, makes phone calls, puts up hoardings and, most importantly, donates.

Nationals donations seem to have remained at healthy levels – see National Party donations in 2018 topped $700,000 – more than any other party

n the 2018 leadership race, a large plank of Judith Collins’ campaign was centred around her popularity with the base. Members want to see her, and other MPs invite her to their electorates to speak and mingle. These are the people National needs to mobilise if it’s to win, and they’re not going to open up their wallets if they don’t feel they’re being listened to.

But there’s an even greater question of just who constitutes the base. Traditionally, membership of a party was more or less synonymous with being a part of that party’s base. But as fewer and fewer people decide to become members of a political party, the gap between a party’s official membership and its base – which might be understood as people who regularly vote and donate to a party – has grown.

As of 2018, National had roughly 20,000 or so members. A sizeable cohort, but it pales when you place this alongside another measurement of the party’s “base”, which was polled for in the New Zealand Election Study after the 2017 election.

In that study, a full 26.56 percent of people said they were “close to” National. If you were to map that onto the 2.6 million people who voted in the 2017 election, you find that nearly 700,000 voters would say they were “close to” National.

Now, experience suggests that only a fraction of that base is actually going to get out door knocking — but it does illustrate two problems bedevilling National: one, the difficulty in knowing exactly what and where their base is; and two, the knowledge that whatever it is, it’s likely to be massive.

It’s not just the base that’s important for a major party – there is also the all important ‘centre’ or floating voter.

And under MMP support parties have (so far) been critical in winning the Government benches.

Without any friends on the right, National has the unwelcome task of soaking up votes in the centre, whilst mobilising the right wing base. This is more difficult for National than other parties, as its base contains both right-leaning an left-leaning factions.

National’s odd decision to oppose the UN Migration Pact, a cause championed on some of the darkest corners of the internet, and completely at odds with the party’s record as a champion of migration, was an example of the party struggling to do two things at once. The catastrophic “emotional junior staffer” saga was an example of what happens when this goes wrong.

Bridges’ problem (therefore national’s problem) is that he lacks support parties and is failing to impress the base and also the floating voters.

The future success of the National party, unless a new party emerges, depends on it being able to mobilise both on the right, and in the centre. It’s no easy task. Even one of MMPs greatest political forces, Helen Clark, knew she couldn’t win by campaigning on the left.

I have voted National at times in the past, but they are nowhere near close to earning my vote next year. My impression is that they are moving further from where I would consider them as a viable option.

Perhaps it will become clearer next year who the modern National Party is, and who they want to represent.

Their lack of clear identity isn’t a crisis, yet, But it could be next year.