This Far - But No Further: In spite of his best efforts, John Key could not lift National's vote above 48 percent. Like Rob Muldoon and Jim Bolger before him, it was a matter of "close, but no cigar". Clearly, Stephen Joyce's dream of winning more than 50 percent of the Party Vote must remain just that - a dream. National's tide is at the full: it can only recede.
THE RULE BOOK is safe. The experts told us that, under a system of proportional representation, it is next-to-impossible for a single party to win more that 50 percent of the popular vote in a multi-party election. And so it has proved. Indeed, John Key’s election-night boast that National had achieved its best result since 1951 proved to be somewhat premature. In terms of the popular vote, both Rob Muldoon and Jim Bolger did better than Mr Key, taking 47.6 percent And 47.8 percent respectively.
Nevertheless, 47.3 percent of the Party Vote is an impressive feat – and fully two percentage points higher than the MMP record established by Mr Key’s party only three years ago. In failing to breach that historical limit of 48 percent, however, Mr Key has laid to rest the cherished hope of many in the National Party that a genuine majority lies within their grasp. And, with the emphatic victory of MMP in the referendum, it must now be generally accepted that the tide of National support can rise no higher.
This leaves National’s strategists facing a rather large conundrum. Having swallowed-up all of their right-wing electoral rivals – and still fallen short of their 50 percent + 1 target – in which direction should they now turn? Further to the Right? Or double-back and turn towards the Left?
Prior to the election there were many in National’s ranks quietly praying that most of the four percent of the Party Vote claimed by NZ First in 2008 would end up flowing National’s way. Their shock and anger on election-night is easily imagined.
Unlike the Alliance, Winston Peters’ party did not fracture, and then fracture again into electoral irrelevance. Far from it. NZ First not only held, it grew. The notorious “tea-pot tape” observations of Messrs Key and Banks notwithstanding, Mr Peters support extends far beyond the elderly. As anyone who witnessed the launch of his campaign at Alexandra Park will testify, his base now spans the entire New Zealand population – including, perhaps surprisingly, immigrants from East and South Asia.
That just leaves Colin Craig’s Conservative Party. Absorbing the latter’s two percent of the Party Vote would, however, come at a cost. National would have to step back into the fetid ideological swamp of the Religious Right: that place where Don Brash came to such grief in the 2005 General Election; that place from which Mr Key extracted National’s electability by throwing his party’s support behind the anti-smacking bill in 2007.
Any embrace of the Religious Right would provoke a mass exodus of National’s more liberal supporters. The party might inherit the nearly 60,000 electors who voted Conservative, but it would likely lose twice that number to Labour and the Greens.
If moving further to the Right offers National few, if any, advantages; what about a move to the Left? Much of Mr Key’s first term success is attributable to his decision to bring the Maori Party into his government. Like his very public repudiation of the Religious Right, the National Leaders embrace of the Maori Party silenced the howling dogs of Orewa who, like their evangelical brethren, posed a deadly threat to National’s carefully constructed image of moderation.
But while the embrace of the Maori Party has brought only good to National, to the Maori Party itself it has brought only division and decline. Though the loyalty of its three remaining MPs may be shored up with the perquisites of ministerial office, the party will almost certainly expire as a viable electoral force before the 2014 election.
Which leaves only the Greens as a potential National Party running mate in elections to come. But is this, the ultimate fantasy of the Right’s urban liberals, a practical proposition? Or, would it lead to the fracturing of both parties’ electoral bases?
Reaching out to the Greens would induce both rage and panic among National’s rural and provincial supporters. The offer of anything more substantial than an anodyne “Memorandum of Understanding” would immediately set off wild drumming in the heartland for the establishment of a “Country Party”. In the deep blue suburbs of metropolitan New Zealand such an unthinkable misalliance would pump lungfuls of desperately needed oxygen into the barely breathing body of the Act Party. And with Winston Peters hastening to set up refugee camps in NZ First, National would be faced with imminent disintegration.
And always, over National’s shoulder looms the spectre of New Zealand’s second largest party. No, not Labour, but the party of the one million Kiwis who chose not to vote at all in 2011. It is among these voters that the missionaries of the opposition parties will be moving ceaselessly for the next three years: cajoling them; flattering them; and wooing them back to the ballot-box.
How many of them, I wonder, are National voters?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 December 2011.