Holding On versus Climbing Up: Securing a fourth term for National will require every bit of John key's indisputable political skill. Andrew Little will need all that skill and more to propel his Labour Party into office. Between 2015 and 2017 political life will be defined by this complementary struggle for Time and Power.
JOHN KEY owes a lot to Helen Clark. Indeed, it is now a commonplace among political analysts that a large measure of the present Prime Minister’s success is attributable to the careful study he made of his predecessor. Few would deny that it was time well spent. The politician wise enough to be taught is generally only bested by the politician who determines to keep on learning.
Helen Clark was an incrementalist politician: making haste slowly in the manner of the Roman general Fabius Maximus. Mr Key is also a Fabian. Not in the sense of being a member of the British Labour Party’s celebrated think-tank, but in the manner of a political leader who, by keeping his changes small enough for the electorate to swallow, reduces greatly the risk of them being violently regurgitated.
A lot of little changes, eventually, add up to quite a few very big changes. The keyword being “eventually”. Apart from political power itself, the element most crucial to the success of a Fabian strategy is time.
The political struggle of the next three years will, therefore, be for Power and Time.
Mr Key knows that if he succumbs to the temptation to ram the big changes demanded by National’s increasingly restive right-wing down the electorate’s gullet, then not only do they risk being regurgitated, but he and his party will also find themselves out of time and out of power. Somehow, Mr Key must persuade his more ideologically-driven colleagues to remain patient. (In the warm glow of the latest poll results, it’s difficult to see the latter formulating a radically different strategy with any hope of success!)
The Leader of the Opposition’s, Andrew Little’s, first priority over the next three years is Power – i.e. winning the 2017 General Election. To succeed he will have to study carefully not only what his National opponent has done right between 2006 (the year John Key became Leader of the Opposition) and the present, but also what his own Labour Party has done wrong.
At the core of this course of study lies a cluster of brutal facts about the twenty-first century New Zealand electorate that every aspiring prime minister must grasp.
The first fact to grasp is that, at present, the ideology of neoliberalism faces no serious challengers. The neoliberal view of the world, a world of sovereign, self-interested individuals and free markets, is the majority view of the New Zealand electorate.
The second brutal fact (closely related to the first) is that the neoliberal world-view cannot be contested successfully from any position other than that of full state power. In other words: to end neoliberal ascendancy in New Zealand a centre-left political party must first become the Government. It cannot be done from Opposition.
The third brutal fact is that twenty-first century elections in New Zealand are not won by policies based on reason, but by the timely apprehension and effective exploitation of a public mood for change. This will be driven almost entirely by the voters’ emotions.
The final brutal fact about the electorate is how little stock it places in the opinions of scientists, artists, journalists or, indeed, the life of the mind generally. With the notable exceptions of books, magazines and television programmes about sport, property, cooking and celebrity culture, it reads and watches very little of substance and displays a distressing lack of introspection or curiosity concerning the wider world. It is in love with twenty-first century technological civilisation and rejects utterly the idea that it might be unsustainable. On the plus side, the New Zealand electorate is confident, generous, rates itself highly and will not be preached to or patronised by anybody (especially politicians!) who reckon they’re better than everyone else.
Nobody in New Zealand politics has a firmer grasp of these salient facts about the Kiwi voter than John Key. By the same token, no Labour or Green MP possesses the slightest chance of becoming Prime Minister until they’re ready to place Mr Key’s political insights at the heart of their 2017 election strategy.
For those on the left of New Zealand politics it means shutting-up and letting Andrew Little and his team play for power in the only way that holds out the prospect of victory.
And after victory? All in good time, Fabius Maximus, all in good time.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 January 2015.