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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Rehabilitating the National Party - Part I: Why 46% don't mean jack s**t!

This is part one in a multi part series where we look what is eating Bill & The B team and try and figure out how to rescue the party's political fortunes. Your welcome, no thanks needed.

However before we get into this let me explain my reasons for wanting to see National back in the game  because despite whomping the party more than once in past blog posts I understand the need for a democratic opposition, even over my own distaste for the many decrepit characters which infest the party like head lice at a sleep over.

National provide a conservative balance to the liberal values of Labour and the Greens and in doing so restrain the more wilder schemes of those parties which, if let off the leash, could do just as much damage as any right wing machinations. 

Thus Democracy in NZ needs a full spectrum of political parties to be healthy and vibrant, and as much as the Left can get all twisted up about that, the alternate is the loss of dynamic tension so vital to democratic debate and we end up with some sort of one party state where all snowflakes are equal but some snowflakes are more equal than others.

And with that out of the way lets get down to things.

So, you won’t read about it elsewhere (actually you might) but the National party has a problem, actually not just one problem but lots of problems (which we will get to in our next post) that, at the end of the day, have all rolled together into the glutinous mass that now affect the party of Blue's political fortunes.

“What!?” I hear you say, as you spit your coffee all over the monitor or tablet screen, “That’s not true, that’s impossible. National does not have a problem, what in Keith Holyoake’s name are you talking about?”

Search your feelings Sparky, you know it to be true, because when you take away that 46% in the polls, that I know you’re going to try and use as justification for the argument that all is well with Bill & Friends, what else is there to show that National is fine and dandy?

And lets pause here while you take a moment to think about it...

That's right, there is nothing else going to say that Big Blue is doing good (except perhaps the vague hope that the new coalition government will somehow implode). Politics is a zero sum game as far as getting into government is concerned and while in government people are often willing to overlook the problems that a party has: they are less inclined to do so when the same party is in opposition. 

National has had a lot of issues in the last nine years (child poverty, water issues, immigration, housing, labor laws, sucking up to multinationals, infestation by lobbyists, dodgy MP's, dodgy (but popular) PM, Bill English's face, scandals ahoy etc etc et-f**king-cetra) which are going to come back to haunt it as Labour rapidly dismantles Nationals free market house of cards, rolls back all the laws it passed and moves to start addressing (as it has already done with its 100 days plan) all the issues that national created or ignored while on its watch.

And there is no reason to be embarrassed about this as its better to fess up now than be like Labour in the wake of Helen Clark (2008 to 2017) where it spun its wheels for well over eight years while trying to figure out what it was doing, where it was going who was going to drive.

Thus there are good reasons why Nationals 46% is not sufficient to justify claiming all is well for the party: let us count them shall we.

First, National is out of office after losing the 2017 election to Labour, NZ First and the Greens; meaning that after nine years with their hands on the levers of power National is now in the political wilderness and no longer the organ grinder but now the dancing monkey. No more ministerial perks, no more fawning civil servants and no more having the power to make or change the laws as you wish. 46% looks good on paper when your'e saying you are the most popular party but it has not translated into power, which is the whole reason for playing the game.

46% was not enough to form a government in the age of MMP and National, still clinging to a FPP mentality (where getting a sheer majority of the vote was all that mattered rather than concentrating on cultivating the political alliances needed to build a stable coalition government) killed stone cold dead its coalition chances with its failed hit on Winston Peters (via leaking his Superannuation over payments to the media) in the run-up to September and thus rendering that 4 and 6 all but useless when it came time to do the coalition math*.

Second, 46% is really only useful when its election season where such numbers can be used to translate into seats via the ballot box. Outside of elections, political polling does not effect change in government unless it’s catastrophically bad polling (think Thersa May and Brexit) and with Nationals 46% being beaten by the coalitions 50% such conditions do not apply here.

Worse still is that with Bill English dropping sharply in the preferred PM stakes (down 9 to 28% to Jacinda’s rise to 37%) the one poll number that could offset being out of office is clearly against them. No one is clamoring for Bill to lead the nation and at this time and I would bet a round of drinks that Jacinda’s baby would poll higher than him as preferred PM. 

Political polling is the barometer of the public's mood but you can’t point to it and claim just because its sunny today it’s going to be sunny forever.

Which brings us to our third, and by no means least, point: 46% today does not mean 46% tomorrow. In the early 2000s National was polling in the low 20s (which coincidentally was the last time Bill English was leader of the party) and the separation between its current polling and the abysmal 22% it was scraping by on in 2002 shows exactly how much swing potential there is between the hard core of the party and those who happen to vote National this election but might just as easily vote for Labour next**.

So National (and you) can point to that 46% all you like but at the end of the day it’s not in government, has almost zero chance of seducing NZ First (its only possible coalition partner now) away from Labour, its agenda is off the political menu and its going to have to fight against the greater public image and message of the current government: none of this bodes well for Bill & Co.

If the path of NZ electoral politics retains any of its past consistency then National is likely to face three terms in opposition and spend much of that time, like Labour previously did, politically stunted (due to the political castration that occurred during the Key and Clark years respectively) and still dreaming of its halcyon days in office when it should be using the time to be an effective opposition and preparing for the next election***.

As PM, Bill English commanded a certain degree of respect from the public and media. As leader of the opposition Bill is just another voice in the mass of voices shouting for attention. Sure he gets a few perks but almost everything he (and his party) does is in response to what the government is doing; its the mental equivalent of shifting from an active, or offensive, posture to a reactive, or defensive, posture, the mindsets are different and must to change for a party to survive.

And the key to accepting that change is to listen to the hard truth that National lost the 2017 election, is out of government and that its 46% in the polls does not mean a thing when your in the political wilderness for the next three years.

So that's it for Part I: next up we scrape away the pancake makeup and take a warts and all look at the National party to assess its political health. bend over and cough!

*-political math 101: 46% for National < 50% for the Coalition government
**-Or the Greens, NZ First and even [shudder] ACT.
***-Which we will get to later in this series of posts


  1. So let me get this straight - the National party's poll numbers don't matter, but the party leader's personal approval ratings do matter?

    Why is that? Given that people are voting for the party, not the leader, and further given that it is quite possible for a party to win elections when the leader is less popular than the party?

  2. Hi DPF:

    In this situation context is the key. As noted in the post, party polling is a useful barometer but unless it catastrophic (think Labour hitting 24% last year) then it has no transactional value unless an election is approaching.

    Leadership polling on the other hand can translate into tangible change any time and I don't think it coincidence that Bill English's polling is down and there is media coverage of rumblings in the party.

    You are correct that a party can win an election with an unpopular leader but as the rise of Jacinda Arden has shown your party has a darn sight better chance if your lead by a popular leader.

    I bemoan the shift/rise of personality politics as much as you but as I have blogged about previously it's not a dynamic that can be ignored at this time.

    National may be struggling at this time to find a replacement but sooner or later they will have to replace him.

    Bill and National are talking tough at the moment but I would be surprised (very surprised) if they let him have a third bite of the cherry by being leader come the next election.

    Such a situation would preclude no leadership challenges, and we know there are contenders waiting in the wings, and Nationals polling staying as it is for the next three years (granted a possibility but not one I would bet on).

    National has the perfect opportunity to rebuild while in opposition and a leadership change is a big part of that. Thus the man from adoption has to go on that alone even if you were to ignore his other failings.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Also I am writing this on my mobile while praying for a flight in WTGN airport so excuse any typos.

  4. What kind of tangible change can most-favoured-Prime Minister polling bring?

    1. Remember John Key and how popular he was, his polling was his shield against all and any criticism, a man that popular with the public could do no wrong and he proved it again and again with rape jokes, pigtail pulling and all manner of antics. Consequently he bolstered the National brand immeasurably and gave the party a boost in exactly the same way as Ritchie McCaw did out on the filed for the ABs.

      Now consider Andrew Little who could not pull up his polling no matter what he did and how his bad karma soon started to make Labour look bad for having him as leader, specially when Jacinda started to get public attention. The public did not trust him to run even the party let alone in the PM role.

      Next look at Winston and how he has been able to parlay his personal popularity into a 40 year career in politics with a party that would die a horrid death the moment Winnie get out of the game. He regularly has been on the most favored PM poll in third and I think a few times even second place.

      Finally consider the massive change to Labour in the wake of Jacinda taking over last year. Labour was wallowing at 24% in the polls and in two months she went up and up and up and the party went with her. Now they are closing in on national and yet less than six months ago they were dead as the dodo.

      The tangible you are looking for may not be an actual physical thing but leadership is very tangible when it comes to being an actual leader and people may not be able to articulate it but they know it when they see it.

      Bill English has been a safe pair of hands but he is not leadership material, he is the perfect deputy but he is not the sheriff and never will be and all this talk of letting him go with "dignity" is just code for "he will choose when he goes but he will go!"

      I will deep fry in batter and eat my voter registration papers if he is leading National in 2020.

    2. "Now consider Andrew Little who could not pull up his polling no matter what he did"

      Yes but Little's departure was precipitated by the Labour party polling badly, not his personal poll ratings.

      Most leadership changes happen when the party is polling badly. So, contrary to what you said, the party's polls are quite capable of creating a leadership change.

      Conversely, if the party is doing well in the polls, the leader has a pretty strong defense against anybody trying to roll them - he can simply say that, whatever his flaws or mistakes, they're not affecting the polls.

    3. However, since you believe preferred PM polls are so critical, here's a question - are any of English's potential replacements doing better than him in these polls? And if not, what is the point of replacing somebody unpopular with somebody even more unpopular?

    4. I don't think the problem with Little was Labour polling badly but his lack of popularity did not help Labour and he should have gone well before the party hit 24%.

      Party polling and leader polling often seem to be somewhat symbiotic in this age of the cult of personality so Labour was in a bind but Little was not helping and vice versa, it took Jacinda (like it or not) to turn the tide.

      Little never had the ability to be leader and he sucked at it from the get go and consequently he dragged Labours polling down, not the other way around.

      Bill English is not in the same position (yet) but he cant get National over the hurdle of an electoral victory, he is not that kind of guy, he has had his shots and he failed.

      As for his replacement I don't want to spoil and upcoming post but National are probably going to have to play the same game that Labour played while in opposition and that's test run a few candidates and see how they resonate or/and start building up some MPs to the position. Nikki Kaye seems to get mentioned more than a few times, why not her?

      Nationals core problems are not its leaders but others things but it needs a credible leader to guide it through opposition even if they don't win in 2020 and that's not English.

      At best English's brand is worn out and at worst he is a walking liability given how many dirty things he has done as PM and MP, also he is the wrong generation and just the wrong face.

      Lets start with Kaye and see how we go, heck even Collins if we are game for a laugh (she wont be happy till she gets what she wants, why not let her do the Don Brash thing and then set the stage for Kaye).

      The point here is English is not election capable and without an election capable leader National will have to rely on other factors come the next election and thats a hard ask for any party. Better to get rid of him now and start the hard yards trying to find a replacement well before they have to go into battle with an election looming.

      If only they could clone JK.

      But to answer you question more direct, in opposition AND in the wake of John Key (who had the same effect on possible leadership challengers as Helen did for Labour) National is just going to have to start from scratch and if that means risking a few bad choices well they have potentially three terms to do that in.

      However lets concentrate on just getting rid of Bill first as we all know he is going to go, its just a matter of time.

    5. And Nationals polling cant last so waiting for it to slide is the last resort option.

      Thats was the one amazing thing about Key leaving as despite whatever actual reason for leaving he gifted the party a high poll rating and therefore saved the party from having to deal with both a leader and popularity crisis at the same time.

      Its the same thing now, better for Bill to go now and give the successor a fighting chance. Yes he can go in his time and fashion but he still has to go.

      Besides waiting to change a leader when the party polling is low is ambulance at the bottom of the cliff thinking, its crisis management, National need to be smarter than that.

  5. "Party polling and leader polling often seem to be somewhat symbiotic"

    Often, but not in this instance, what with the party polling way better than English.

    You argue for the importance of leadership polls, but Nikki Kaye does far worse than English in preferred Prime Minister polls, so replacing him with someone who does worse in leadership polls doesn't seem to make any sense.

    It's possible that National's poll numbers will decrease, but if you believe that an English leadership challenge will only happen when the party's polls get worse, you're no longer arguing that the party's polls don't matter.

  6. There has been a leadership challenge in National since JK called it quits in December 2016, remember when there was a rush to throw hats into the ring for who would lead National. That only quietened down once Key anointed English but that anointment was only good until the election and once over (and lost) that challenge starts up again, as we have seen.

    Also as I noted, waiting for both leadership and party polling to drop is ambulance at the bottom of the cliff thinking: that's what sunk Labour so badly in opposition.

    I'm only throwing Kaye out as example and lets face it most National MPs don't poll well personality wise at this time, that should not stop them from dealing with the English issue. That's why they have three years if they do this now and a lot less time if they wait and let their party polling slip.

    There are no absolutes in politics so I will admit that I am going on just as much gut as knowledge here but its the same gut that had me calling to get rid of Little well before he went, the election (because it was clear that Winston would not go with National) and Trump (because he tapped into the anger better than Hillary) and right now my gut is saying that National has to deal with English sooner rather than later.

    The "sense" you are looking for here is not the short term metrics of sheer party/leader polling but the long term gains to be had from changing leadership when its clear that your current leader is not going to make the cut come election time.

    I agree its not a magic bullet and they may have to do some hard looking but a replacement needs to be found and as National does most of this behind closed doors rather than in the open like Labour, we are getting only snippets of whats going on (and my national Party contact remains very mum on this) so if there are rumblings in the media I am going to go with that (on a where smoke there is fire basis) and say that the leadership challenge is on again and we will just have to wait and see which faction in the party will get control.

  7. "I will admit that I am going on just as much gut as knowledge here"

    Ah well there it is.

    1. Yes, there it knowledge and instinct: they have served me well so far with my political predictions.