Thursday 21 May 2020

Does National Still Need A Street-Fighting Man?

Eyes Left! On the face of it, the election of Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye is a no-brainer. New Zealanders are clearly in no mood for a “dirty little street-fighter” and, if the polls are any indication, resent strongly Bridges’ implication that they are. To be at all competitive with Labour, National needs a radical change of faces.

WHO WILL EMERGE from Friday’s emergency meeting of National caucus as the party’s No.1 and No. 2? Will it be the incumbents: Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett? Or will the election of Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye signal National’s return to a kinder, gentler conservatism? Does Judith “Crusher” Collins’ very public renunciation of her leadership ambitions indicate her intention to swing her support behind Bridges and Bennett? Or, is she backing Muller and Kaye in return for the crucial Finance portfolio? Are Collins’ supporters even numerous enough to swing this contest, or will Mark Mitchell’s handful of votes be required to nudge the eventual winners over the line? If so, what will Mitchell’s price be?

On the face of it, the election of Muller and Kaye is a no-brainer. New Zealanders are clearly in no mood for a “dirty little street-fighter” and, if the polls are any indication, resent strongly Bridges’ implication that they are. To be at all competitive with Labour, National needs a radical change of faces. Beating Jacinda’s “Kindness” will require of the Right a credible presentation of “Kindness+”. In the best of all possible contests that “plus” would be “Wisdom”. In its present mood, however, the best “plus” the Right is likely to offer the voters is “Competence”.

Like everything in electoral politics it will all come down to numbers. Who has them and who doesn’t. In the February 2018 caucus contest that gave New Zealand the Bridges/Bennett combination it seemed pretty clear that the liberal wing of the party backing Amy Adams didn’t have the numbers. The question to be answered now is whether or not the 27 months under Bridges/Bennett have convinced enough of National’s hard-liners that dirty street-fighting is not going to win them back the treasury benches. If the polls have sufficiently spooked them, then they may be persuaded to reluctantly shuffle left. Unspooked, they will keep their nerve and wait for Covid-19’s economic shit to hit the fan.

Empirically, the hardliners can point to the impressive solidity of National’s public support across all but a few of those 27 months (the big exception being the period following the Christchurch Mosque Shootings). They might also cite the salutary impact of Bridges’ dirty social media street-fighting on Labour’s popularity. Unbuttressed by crisis and calamity, they can fairly argue, Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues are sitting ducks. Thinking of political feather-brains like Phil Twyford, David Clark and Kelvin Davis it’s hard not to agree!

Those hardline Nats with a bent for military history might compare National’s position with that of the Germans at the Battle of the Somme. The Covid-19 health crisis, like the British artillery’s horrendous opening barrage, has indisputably shaken the defenders’ confidence – but has it been destroyed? When the whistles blew and the poor Tommies rose out of their trenches and began moving steadily across no man’s land towards what they had been assured was a pulverised enemy, the German machine-gunners mowed them down like corn. Substitute utter economic carnage for those German machine-gunners and the analogy becomes strikingly clear.

The problem with political hardliners of every stripe is that they lack the flexibility of mind to put themselves in the position of their opponents. Not being able to imagine – and hence anticipate – what their enemy might do to thwart their plans, they are rendered incapable of adapting fixed strategies and tactics. The National Right has convinced itself that the Coalition Government lacks the experience and talent required to steer New Zealand safely through the Covid-19 induced recession. Confronted with ever-increasing numbers of failed businesses and unemployed workers, they see Jacinda and her colleagues freezing in the headlights of the Right’s oncoming truck. As far as National’s hardliners are concerned, all they have to do to win is make sure those headlights are kept on full-beam.

What they have singularly failed to grasp is that, as Laila Harré observed on Q+A on Monday night, the Covid-19 emergency has elevated Jacinda well above the plane of a mere party leader or prime minister. It has transformed her into New Zealand’s leader: the woman credited with doing the right thing to defend her people by an astonishing 92 percent of Reid Research’s respondents. A political dynamic is operating here that goes way beyond mere partisanship. Jacinda has not only changed the way her people look at her, she has changed the way she looks at herself. You cannot bring down such leaders, you can only wait for them to fall.

Jacinda does not have to do anything more between now and 19 September than urge New Zealanders to endure the pain. Like Winston Churchill in 1940, she need offer them nothing more in the immediate term than “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. But, if they can hold out in these fortunate islands; if they are willing to give her and Labour the votes they need to finish the job of rebuilding and recovery; ah well, then, in Churchill’s wonderfully evocative words: “the life of the world can move forward into broad sunlit uplands”. This is the new reality that the National Opposition has to grasp: that Labour does not need to win the battle of the present, if it has already won the battle of the future.

Which is not to suggest that Jacinda and her government are incapable of slipping and falling. Unanticipated obstacles, new disasters, may yet send dark clouds scudding across those sunlit uplands. If they do, then who is better placed to comfort and inspire their dispirited compatriots: Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet, or Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye?

There have been times in New Zealand’s political history when its more conservative citizens have been in the market for “a dirty little street-fighter”. One thinks of Sid Holland, who tamed the militant unions in 1951. Or Rob Muldoon in 1975, promising conservatives New Zealand the way they (not the Left) wanted it. In 2005, it was Don Brash who asserted the rights of “Kiwi” over “Iwi”. These were the leaders chosen by National for times of “Us” versus “Them”.

These are not such times. The Covid-19 global pandemic of 2020 has brought the New Zealand people closer together. They are not looking for a National Opposition determined to drive them apart.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 May 2020.


BlisteringAttack said...

May 1945 Churchill was the toast of the Empire.

A few months later he was routed at the polls.

Kat said...

The blue rinse elderly woman on TV One news last night summed it up well "I wish Jacinda Ardern was the leader of the National party........"

Not having to put up with Simon Bridges shouty and Paula Bennetts pouty would be a big plus, but looking at the current lot on the National bench its just all shades of beige.

Nothing like a hot toddy in winter though.

Sam said...

BlisteringAttack. You do realise Germany lost ww1 do you not? Small price to pay I guess

Chris Trotter said...

To: Blistering Attack.

Indeed he was! And if he had embraced the Beveridge Report and refrained from accusing the Labour Party of wanting to set up its own "Gestapo", he likely would have remained so.

But, Churchill was war-horse - not a plough-horse.

It is also worth remembering that in 1945 no one in the UK had participated in a general election for 10 years. Never too chuffed about democracy, Churchill had simply forgotten how to play the electoral game.

So he was sort of brought down and he sort of fell. Let's call it a draw.

J Bloggs said...

National are about to make the same mistake that Labour made in 2011, if they take the path of leadership change at this point.

Like Jacinda, John Key was given a crisis (the Christchurch earthquakes) that allowed him to demonstrate leadership to the country. Labour had no chance of winning the next election, and instead of accepting this and consolidating for 2014, they instead headed down the road of prolonged internal bickering with first Shearer, then Cunliffe and finally Little taking turns at the leadership before they fianlly settled on Ardern. This bickering, which flowed into the public realm made Labour look disorganised, factious and most unready to actually run the country. It probably allowed National to last far longer in government than otherwise would have been expected.

Failing something incredibly bad from the Labour party, I cannot see them losing in September. National's best bet would be to accept this is the most likely outcome, don't make winning in September the reason for leadership change now, then build on providing solid opposition (and not just barking at every passing car) over the next 3 years, rather that following the same path as the Labour party of the last decade.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You know, if it was the Labour Party undergoing a leadership crisis this place would be full of conservatives crowing about it. But to be honest I can't be bothered. So many people who have minimised the Covid 19 emergency have caught it and died that I'm all out of schadenfreude. I'll have to order some more. Maybe someone somewhere is hoarding it.

My father voted Labour in 1945, because he'd read the beverage report. It was circulated to all the troops – that was quite possibly a mistake on the part of the conservatives but I wouldn't have a clue as to how the decision was arrived at. Dad read it I think, sitting off the coast of Japan somewhere.

AB said...

The distinction between a 'liberal' wing and a 'street-fighting' wing of National relies on elevating tiny, almost immaterial differences into something significant. If you are poor, unemployed or generally struggling, you could barely insert a cigarette paper between them.

Kat said...

Chris, I bet you must be having a tipple on tonight's poll result...... :)

Shane McDowall said...

Congratulations to Todd Muller on becoming captain ... of the Titanic.

I have said it before, but I will say it again, keep an eye on Mark Mitchell.

The Barron said...

Hey! Think the time is right for a Palace Revolution
But where I live the game to play is Compromise Solution!
Well then what can a poor boy do except to sing for a Rock and Roll Band
Because in sleepy London Town
There's just no place for Street Fighting Man! No!
Rolling Stones

Call out the instigators
Because there's something in the air
Thunderclap Newman

All the burning bridges that have fallen after me
All the lonely feelings and the burning memories
Everyone I left behind each time I closed the door
Burning bridges lost forevermore
Theme from Kelly's Heroes

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss
The Who

Nick J said...

The collective ethos at the heart of National is venality. Greed to keep what you have, greed to get more. If others suffer, well they should have been greedy too. Its a price we pay because we need greedy people who want more, they are after all most likely to be the enterprising ones who set up new businesses. The issue is really how far do we let them run?,How much do we let them keep?

Today we saw the venality of the National caucus, staring into the abyss, massive loss of seats and salaries, loss of the post politics perks like seats on boards. The money all looks like its going west. Desperate times, calculated desperate measures. Can't see it will do them any good.

austringer said...

Auch!there ye are then,the Nats,trying to bring a spring or is it Zest,to their step.Mr Zesty,when asked yesterday
on the Nation tv show,why have you not mentioned the welfare state in your acceptance statement as leader and what your leadership will bring,'well there is a need for a security blanket",and there lays the rub of old school farm fence national party politics,and he being in the day, one of the first Zespry orchard owners in our fare land, and one not to miss out and exploit a good thing profited by casual labour and minimum wage rates.So as they say the song remains the same,as will his tenure as leader of the Nats,same as it ever was. Also in passing,the next guest known by some, as the first female Prime Minister of this fare land,( really),was she not appointed by her then caucus,as she like Zesty, rolled their leader, and when she did take to the Nation led National to the biggest kicking ever at the ballot box.Bye the way,are they making a musical about the Adams Family,she looked like she could audition for the part of Mortica,maybe up staging the Tamika tusker in his roll as the narrator in the Rocky Horror Show.

greywarbler said...

The Barron
Great thoughts. I can't help thinking of The Wall and Pink Floyd.

To me National and neoliberal acolytes think:
All in all you're just another brick in the wall

greywarbler said...

Second time I have read the name - The Beverage Report with different spellings. It was in the past but it is relevant still.

In NZ it probably vanished in an alcoholic haze. Countries seem to have trouble keeping the citizens minds on imbibing the information that is needed to keep countries on the right track in peacetime so that they don't end up either going to war. Russia has vodka for instance, and others have their mind-altering substances. It seems an easy slope that enables slipping into behaviours of self-interest. Those lead to conditions of competition that lead to inequality and widening divisions between classes. Just breaking the cycle of poverty wouldn't stop the regular wars though; to do that a major group of citizens would need to keep informed and committed to keeping a balanced society. This I think would involve ensuring that values of respect and maintenance of kindly humanity, also commitment to the model and regular study of its value along with small improvements as discussed and requested by citizens, were kept to the fore.

Was that in the Beverage(sic) Report?