THE PROBLEM which the Act Party faces for the next two years, is the same problem that plagued the Alliance. Jim Anderton’s coalition of anti-establishment parties thrived while the official Opposition, Labour, languished. But, for every percentage point Labour recovered in the opinion polls, the Alliance was forced to contemplate the deflation of its political hopes and dreams. Now that National stands poised to elect a new leader, Act’s own leader, David Seymour, will be praying that he or she proves to be no better than the last.
The only glimmer of hope for Act, and Seymour, is that National’s fractured caucus currently contains no one even remotely like Helen Clark.
The Alliance’s fortunes were never more promising than when the Labour Party was led by Mike Moore. For all his undoubted strengths as a politician, Moore’s inescapable weakness was that he was part of the cabal of Labour politicians responsible for what came to be known as “Rogernomics”.
The famous photograph of Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett, David Lange and Moore guiltily enjoying a feed of fish-and-chips following their first (unsuccessful) attempt to roll Bill Rowling, was to haunt Moore for the rest of his life. For those many thousands of former Labour voters who experienced Rogernomics as an unforgiveable betrayal, Moore would always be one of the “Fish-and-Chip Brigade”. It made him Jim Anderton’s best recruiting sergeant.
Helen Clark was a different story altogether. Among those who knew her (and that was pretty much every Labour Party activist of the 1980s) Clark was never going to be condemned as a “Rogernome”. By the same token, she was determined not to be branded an “Andertonista”. The title she relished, and never ceased to cultivate, was “pragmatist”. In practical terms, that meant Clark was willing to be a good social-democrat, if possible; and a reluctant custodian of Roger Douglas’s legacy, if necessary. It was a fine, but vital, distinction. It made her what Anderton never managed to be – prime-ministerial.
It is easy to imagine how closely Seymour has been watching the National Opposition for the slightest sign of a Clark figure emerging. A respected politician, who enjoys broad support across the party and, much more importantly, who impresses the ordinary centre-right voter as having what it takes to be an effective Prime Minister. From Seymour’s perspective, Judith Collins was the perfect Opposition Leader – for Act. How fervently he must be praying that her successor turns out to be as big a liability. Because Seymour knows that if National’s caucus chooses wisely, then Act’s poll numbers will tumble and its electoral support crumble.
That is, of course, a very big “if”. Since 2018, all of National’s choices have gone awry. Even so, someone must be chosen to lead the party. Who?
His sterling efforts at re-branding himself, notwithstanding, former leader (and off-colour jokester) Simon Bridges still fails to impress. Frankly, the man’s a puzzle. Pre-Covid, Bridges was handsomely repaying his colleagues’ confidence with positive poll results. Why, then, did the public never take to him? Perhaps, as Bridges’ autobiography suggests, his perception of himself as an outsider was simply too strong to hide.
Helen Clark never doubted that she was Labour through-and-through. Bridges, however, seems convinced that he’ll never cut the mustard as a “genuine” Nat: never be welcomed as “One of Us” by the Tory toffs. Entrenched racism? Class prejudice? Whatever the explanation, Bridges appears to suffer badly from the “Imposter Syndrome”. The problem being that, in politics, if you don’t believe in yourself, then neither will anybody else.
What about Christopher Luxon? Does he cut the mustard? Until Judith Collins’ self-immolation, the answer to that question was: “Not quite yet.” Parliamentary politics, Luxon’s backers argued, cannot be comprehensively mastered in the space of a year. Better to wait for the politics of the situation to “mature”. Well, the Collins vintage has “matured” alright – and National’s caucus has the shattered wine bottles to prove it. Ready, or not, Mr Luxon has a “tide in the affairs of men” to catch.
Then again, it’s always possible that we are all looking at – but not seeing – the person fated to relegate Seymour to the Reserves Bench. After all, how many people saw the young MP for Mt Albert as a future Prime Minister? And, isn’t that Act’s worst nightmare? National’s very own “Jacinda”?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 November 2021.