Monday 21 March 2022

Holding National Together.

Tough Crowd: Too few to win, too many to die: it is looking more and more as if the National Party’s conservative falcons can no longer hear the falconer.

I DON’T BLAME SIMON BRIDGES for quitting. Seeing the people who toppled him from National’s throne positioning themselves alongside the man now sitting on it didn’t leave much room for doubt. Time to go.

But if Bridges is now free to pursue new opportunities and spend more time with his young family, the National Party itself cannot feel so sanguine. Putting aside the fact that Bridges was one of the very few members of National’s front bench with senior cabinet experience, he was also the leader of the party’s conservative faction.

While Bridges held the Finance Spokesperson’s role, National’s conservatives could tell themselves they possessed a powerful friend at the court of King Christopher. It’s hard to engage in serious political planning without the money-spinner in attendance. The conservatives may have been down, but they weren’t out.

Well, they’re out now.

Clearly, Bridges had been coming out of National’s inner circle feeling less and less like a man who was being taken seriously. Yes, he was there at Luxon’s side, but the person whose ideas were really influencing National’s new leader was the same person who had steered John Key towards victory in the run-up to the 2008 General Election – Nicola Willis. Put that together with Luxon being Key’s protégé, and it’s not hard to see why Bridges might feel he’d become more Ludo token than chess piece.

And now Willis is both the Deputy-Leader of the National Party and its Finance Spokesperson. At No. 3 we find another fierce liberal, Chris Bishop. Notwithstanding his conservative Christian beliefs, Luxon should, henceforth, be seen as a liberal leader. National is coming for Auckland, and Auckland cannot be won by a scary social-conservative.

It’s the strategy Willis sold Key when she was his “Special Adviser” back in 2008, and it is the strategy she is selling Luxon now. It’s a good strategy. New Zealanders are not extremists. They actually like messing around with Mr In-Between.

Which just leaves the conservatives.

For a long time now, National’s biggest political problem has been the uneven speed at which New Zealand’s population has embraced the social changes of the past forty years. There are parts of New Zealand – the inner suburbs of Auckland and Wellington, for example – where social-liberalism is so deeply entrenched that an openly conservative candidate standing for either major party would have little chance of winning an electorate seat. In provincial and rural New Zealand, however, the “wokeism” of the latte-drinkers of Wellington and Auckland Central is despised.

It’s a circle which National is finding it increasingly difficult to square.

The scale of National’s problem is dramatically demonstrated by dividing the post-war period into roughly equal halves. The first half is distinguished by the enormous difficulties Labour experienced in winning elections. Between 1949, the year the First Labour Government fell, and 1984: a period of three-and-a-half decades; Labour held office for just six years.

The median New Zealand voter of that era tended to be materially comfortable and determinedly risk-averse. The country’s social values were conservative and not subject to serious challenge. Yes, there was a “Youth Revolt”, but it made little impression electorally. Older New Zealanders were unimpressed.

That first half was also the era of the Cold War. A time when even Labour’s “democratic socialists” struggled to shake off the suspicion that they were far too close to “communists” for the country’s comfort. (Is that why, after 1984, so many Labour MPs happily jettisoned democratic socialism for “Rogernomics”?)

Certainly, things changed radically for the National Party after 1984. Gone were the days when National could reasonably describe itself as “the natural party of government”. In the 38 years between 1984 and 2022, Labour has held office for twenty years, and the National Party for eighteen.

This roughly equal alternation is illustrative of just how dramatically New Zealand has been changed by the events of the latter half of the post-war period. The stolid, conservative New Zealand, with its widely shared values (and prejudices) has not disappeared entirely, but it is now too small – especially in the context of the MMP electoral system – to serve as the foundation of a successful mainstream party.

Following its disastrous 2002 defeat, National’s solution to this problem was to persuade its hardcore conservatives to hold their noses and stick with the only party capable of holding the line against the increasingly radical social policies of the Labour Party and the Greens. Critical to this task was the below-the-radar support of the conservative Christian churches and the Maxim Institute. They shepherded their flocks into National’s sale-yards: helpfully dissuading them from diluting the right-wing vote by wasting conservative support on parties unlikely to crest the 5 percent MMP threshold.

It is even possible that the quid-pro-quo for this unheralded support was a quiet undertaking to select conservative Christian candidates for safe National seats, thereby baking-in the Christian Right’s political agenda where it mattered most – National’s parliamentary caucus.

As solutions go, this one was obviously short-term. Too many conservative Christians in National’s caucus, especially Christians determined to give legislative effect to their beliefs, and the party would become unelectable. But not before it had torn itself to pieces internally.

Throw into this dangerous god-spell the global impact of Brexit and Trump – both made possible by the even more dangerous sorcery of the Internet and its social-media wizards. The resulting global surge towards right-wing populism called into serious question the despised centre’s ability to hold. For good measure, Mother Nature then conjured-up a global pandemic. Once that happened, it was just a matter of sitting back and waiting for things to fall apart – all over Parliament Grounds.

Last week a group of rural-provincial blokes – looking for all the world as if they’d just stepped off the set of Fear The Living Dead – took to social media with a heartfelt appeal for their fellow blokes to stand up and fight back (presumably electorally) against the horrors of “Jabcinda” and her tyrannical government. At the same time, the anarchist editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury, venturing boldly into the wilder realms of speculation, was inviting his readers to ponder the consequences of a Winston Peters-Judith Collins-led NZ First. One can only imagine how Act would react to that!

Too few to win, too many to die: it is looking more and more as if the National Party’s conservative falcons can no longer hear the falconer.

Nicola Willis’s plan for containing National’s Christian conservatives worked like a charm for John Key in 2008, but can she and Christopher Luxon truly control the rough right-wing beasts that are already slouching towards the 2023 election to be born?

This essay was originally posted on the website of Monday, 21 March 2022.


Kat said...

National has to offer something more than just tax cuts and the continual whinge fest against anything and everything Labour does. The current strategy of getting in first to the media with proposals that the govt is planning to roll out so they can crow they are a govt in waiting may fool some, but will it be enough.

David George said...

National shouldn't too be concerned about the apparent division. They can afford to let ACT pick up the libertarian conservative vote (and possibly NZ First the social conservative vote) and provide a balance in government that way. Under the present leadership National do seem a bit on the wet side so hopefully those other parties can give them a bit of a backbone.

AB said...

I'm sure the tensions you describe are present in National. That is why a decisive defeat of Luxon in 2023 is so necessary - to further inflame those tensions and debilitate the National Party long-term.
We will never get anywhere with addressing the major issues of our time - the climate crisis and the inequality crisis - while National is a major player with any real prospect of power. If they gain power they stall or reverse useful change, and their presence forces Labour into timidity.

Barry said...

I think National are going down the correct pathway. Im conservative and will probably vote Act but we all know that the winning is in the middle . So National go for the middle and slightly right of middle and Act go for the conservative right.
There is no way National can win by themselves and will need Act (and/or NZFirst) so the planning should be for 2 winners.

sumsuch said...

Good interior insight.

I was scared and depressed by the 'Sunday' segment on how bad America is, the Republicans, fascists now. That sort of overview is lacking in most need-to-publish Left/MSM media. I just can't see America doing FDR again, but we did Jacinda out of the blue. A surprise is their best hope.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well sunmsuch, I used to be reasonably sanguine about the US checks and balances being able to cope with an eejit like Trump, but now I'm no longer confident. I'm waiting for the some Republican to say something like "Democracy has failed, what we need is a strong man in charge."They are already saying things like "The US is not a democracy, it's a constitutional republic." And by God they are electing some weird, crazy people. Outright religious nutcases who are racist to the core. Democracies all over the developed world are being subverted by neofascists. It's very similar to the 1930s, they are elected and then begin to dismantle democracy bit by bit. I'm thinking maybe New Zealand can resist this, but then I was sanguine about the US wasn't I?

David George said...

There is a comprehensive and widely acclaimed critique of critical theory available "Cynical Theories" by academics Pluckrose and Lindsay. "How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender and identity - and why it harms everybody".

It looks at "theory", it's roots and it's branches: post colonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, feminism and gender studies, fat theory and so on.
A pretty damning take down of these cartoon like representations of reality, their direct conflict with liberalism and the sustaining institutions developed over millennia, a warning of the dangers of their widespread acceptance and what should be done about it. The first step is to understand what we're dealing and this book is a good place to start.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

There is a comprehensive and widely acclaimed critique of critical theory available "Cynical Theories" by academics Pluckrose and Lindsay. "How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender and identity - and why it harms everybody".

Read it – is not nearly as comprehensive and widely acclaimed as you suggest. And not nearly as good either.
Particularly as it relies on submitting false articles to journals, some of which aren't peer-reviewed, and forgetting that false articles have been done on just about every subject up to and including physics. Sort of takes the wind out of their anti-post-modernist sails a bit. Lots of exaggeration, inflation, and simple hot air.Even they admit that there is certainly a kernel of truth that the basis of all this "theory" stuff.
And it is mostly polemic from someone who has a very limited idea of what critical race theory actually is.They make obvious mistakes, such as neglecting to state that American "identity politics" emerged well before and without the assistance of post-modernism as such. And claiming that Foucault was an activist, which just goes to show they know very little about him. Still, better than most of your reads David.

sumsuch said...

GS, I have a lot of off-time in monsoonal Gisborne. Despite the 84-ists somehow we have strength against the neo-fascists. The new media is rapidly weaponising any person with a dissatisfaction and no idea for the powerful. The only protection is common sense and removal from social media. That can't last -- sand before waves. The Left must lead aggressively, commandingly. Too many fat stomachs, as per the actual '84.

You do so much good work but no one reads too much anymore. Referring off is no good. Summarising for us is one of your good works. Your fact-fighting in the dirt of the glens as opposed to my logical leaping from isle to isle like Finn McCool in his 7 league boots. Yes, I'm delusional but it's so good I'm among people who mostly know what I'm on about.