Falling To Pieces? After 84 years, is the electoral compromise forged in 1936 – when the National Party was born – in danger of falling apart?
AFTER 84 YEARS as New Zealand’s preeminent centre-right political party, is National on the point of disintegrating? Six months ago, that question would have been dismissed as both irrelevant and absurd. In mid-February 2020 the National Party was polling strongly, and its leader, Simon Bridges, while hardly a stellar political performer, was working hard to improve his act. Any pundit predicting that by mid-July National would be poised to elect its third leader in a single year would have been laughed off the telly.
After an extraordinary week in New Zealand politics, two big questions hover over the debris of Todd Muller’s career. 1) How badly will the conservative vote fracture on 19 September? 2) Are National’s internal divisions serious enough to break the party apart?
As matters now stand, the answers to these questions are likely to be: “very badly”, and “yes”.
As conservative voters’ confidence in the National Party falters, they will begin casting about for the most effective way of serving the broader right-wing cause. National’s internal polling is already registering a dramatic surge in voter support for Act, with David Seymour’s party currently sitting on 9 percent of the Party Vote. If these numbers hold, then Act could be looking at a post-election parliamentary contingent of about a dozen MPs.
More traditional conservatives may decide that, since National cannot win the election, it is vital that the NZ First “handbrake” be returned to Parliament. If a big enough chunk of National’s 2017 support decamps to NZ First, then Jacinda Ardern may opt to keep the existing coalition arrangements intact. After all, having Winston Peters at her side to temper the radical policy ambitions of the Greens is a state-of-affairs the Prime Minister is probably perfectly happy to prolong.
Those conservative voters even further to the right may give their votes to the New Conservative Party. Deeply frustrated – and not a little alarmed – by National’s “liberal” drift under Muller, these voters may no longer see much point in remaining part of the Right’s rapidly unravelling bundle of conservative sticks.
Finally, there’s the likely effect of tens-of-thousands of conservative voters deciding to sit the 2020 general election out altogether. With no party they any longer feel comfortable voting for, these New Zealanders may simply decide not to vote at all. Any significant decline in the turn-out of right-wing voters will, of course, have the effect of boosting the impact of the left-wing vote. Expressed as a percentage of the Party Vote, National’s support may plumb depths even more abysmal than the 20.9 percent recorded in 2002.
A descent into the teens would see National transformed into an ultra-conservative rump party. Brim-full of far-right fundamentalist Christian evangelists (who would in no way have been displeased to lose their more liberal colleagues in the electoral rout) such a culturally out-of-touch National Party would have nothing to offer the well-educated, socially-liberal, metropolitan professionals whose support has played such a crucial role in keeping National a mainstream political force. After 84 years, the electoral compromise forged in 1936 – when National was born – would be in danger of breaking apart.
Most New Zealanders have no idea of the context out of which the National Party emerged. The mid-1930s were a particularly fractious time for the Right. The rural-and-provincially-based Reform Party, whose angry, protestant and deeply anti-socialist supporters (most of them farmers) were under enormous economic pressure, had become the reluctant coalition partner of the United Party (formerly the Liberals) which represented the commercial and professional urban middle-classes. These latter voters, alarmed at the political radicalisation caused by the Great Depression, had flirted in their tens-of-thousands with the profoundly undemocratic, quasi-fascist New Zealand Legion. In short, the Right was all over the place. The only thing they had in common was a visceral fear of a working-class-based socialist Labour Government.
It was that fear which, within 12 months of Labour’s 1935 election victory, drew all the squabbling factions of the Right together under the rubric of the New Zealand National Party. As an electoral foil for Labour, this eccentric amalgam of centrists, rightists and far-rightists would prove remarkably successful. While Labour remained a scary, working-class, socialist proposition, National would win election after election.
National’s problem, in July 2020, is that Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party – unlike Mickey Savage’s – is neither scary, nor working-class, nor socialist.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 July 2020.