Analysis: Simon Bridges has made it to the weekend, surviving another tumultuous week as National leader. While he was able to stare down a potential coup on Tuesday, he wasn’t able to put a stop to more leaks of the sort that have rattled his tenure. They started almost immediately after Tuesday’s caucus meeting ended.
Inertia is the real enemy of political leadership. Sure, it takes some brave MP to hold the blade, but it’s inertia that leads to it being wielded. People leaking, speculating, chatting — each one thinking they’ve got a hotter take on 2020 than the next.
And it’s not just the National Party speculating. The Beehive is running its own war games too. They think they’ve got a better grasp on the opposition than it does on itself, and they may be right.
It takes a while for opposition parties to adjust to the murk and plotting of Parliament, after becoming used to the lofty glow of government. Labour’s memories of instability and plotting are fresh, National’s aren’t.
Understandably, Labour views National’s ructions through the lens of its own knotty history. It sees the choice in fairly blunt terms: Bridges is the Phil Goff leader – an obvious successor to the previous, popular government, but unlikely to embody the change needed to get the party over the line come election.
Collins is the David Cunliffe candidate: madly popular with the party base, but polarising to the political centre who would likely migrate left if the National Party pivoted right.
From Labour’s experience, National’s rightward drift seems inevitable; it’s an obvious and natural response to the identity crisis of opposition. So they see Collins as a threat, not in 2020 but for 2023 – because National could get the rightward pivot out of the way in 2020 and focus on a centrist rebound in 2023 with a charismatic but less right-wing candidate like Todd Muller or Nicola Willis.
But there’s a risk in that plan too: Cunliffe’s leadership created backroom rifts in Labour that are felt to this day. The party’s catastrophic defeat in 2014 resulted in a tiny cohort of new MPs making in into Parliament, leaving Jacinda Ardern with slim pickings when it came to selecting experienced MPs for her cabinet.
Contrast this with Don Brash’s impressive electoral showing in 2005, which gave John Key greater depth of talent when it came to selecting ministers (although somehow Richard Worth, Pansy Wong, and Phil Heatly still made it through — Worth and Wong were gone by 2010, while Heatly survived until 2013).
The question of what to do about the base is squarely in National’s court. Unlike Labour, members have no role in selecting their leader: it’s all caucus.
There’s benefit to that. Members don’t like to hear it but professional politicians often know what they’re doing when it comes to what works and what doesn’t. Their livelihoods depend on it and the best spend more time travelling the country, hearing diverse points of view not just listening to party bases, which can get stuck in a narrow political bubble.
But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the base either. Especially in opposition. Come election, the base knocks on doors, makes phone calls, puts up hoardings and, most importantly, donates.
In the 2018 leadership race, a large plank of Judith Collins’ campaign was centred around her popularity with the base. Members want to see her, and other MPs invite her to their electorates to speak and mingle. These are the people National needs to mobilise if it’s to win, and they’re not going to open up their wallets if they don’t feel they’re being listened to.
But there’s an even greater question of just who constitutes the base. Traditionally, membership of a party was more or less synonymous with being a part of that party’s base. But as fewer and fewer people decide to become members of a political party, the gap between a party’s official membership and its base – which might be understood as people who regularly vote and donate to a party – has grown.
Without any friends on the right, National has the unwelcome task of soaking up votes in the centre, whilst mobilising the right wing base.
This was faced by the Green Party in its co-leadership election last year, where card-carrying members took the party leftwards, potentially against the wishes of more moderate people who regularly vote Green, but had never made the decision to formally become members.
As of 2018, National had roughly 20,000 or so members. A sizeable cohort, but it pales when you place this alongside another measurement of the party’s ‘base’, which was polled for in the New Zealand Election Study after the 2017 election.
In that study, a full 26.56 percent of people said they were “close to” National. If you were to map that onto the 2.6 million people who voted in the 2017 election, you find that nearly 700,000 voters would say they were “close to” National.
Now, experience suggests that only a fraction of that base is actually going to get out door knocking — but it does illustrate two problems bedevilling National: one, the difficulty in knowing exactly what and where their base is; and two, the knowledge that whatever it is, it’s likely to be massive.
National is a victim of its own success. Back in 2002, just 20.5 percent of voters “identified” as National-leaning (a slightly different formulation of the same question). That year, National took home just 20.9 percent of the vote, suggesting only National die-hards bothered turning out.
Even when Don Brash rebuilt the party vote back up to 39.1 percent in 2005, only 23.7 percent of respondents to the NZES felt they “identified” with National.
The modern party is far different. In 2014, with John Key in charge, 26.5 percent of NZES respondents felt themselves “close to” National, and with Bill English at the helm in 2017 that number was more or less unchanged. The size of that swing shouldn’t be understated. It’s big enough to swallow New Zealand First whole.
Compare this with Labour, which only 19.96 percent of NZES respondents said they were “close to” and you see that National is a mass appeal party on a huge scale. That comes with the benefits of a larger donor base, but it also comes with the identity crisis of having supporters who pull the party in different directions.
Without any friends on the right, National has the unwelcome task of soaking up votes in the centre, whilst mobilising the right wing base. This is more difficult for National than other parties, as its base contains both right-leaning an left-leaning factions.
New Zealand First have quietly been shifting their own party towards the centre and away from some of the right wing social issues they have previously championed. This is particularly true on issues of immigration.
National’s odd decision to oppose the UN Migration Pact, a cause championed on some of the darkest corners of the internet, and completely at odds with the party’s record as a champion of migration, was an example of the party struggling to do two things at once. The catastrophic “emotional junior staffer” saga was an example of what happens when this goes wrong.
The future success of the National Party, unless a new party emerges, depends on it being able to mobilise both on the right, and in the centre. It’s no easy task. Even one of MMPs greatest political forces, Helen Clark, knew she couldn’t win by campaigning on the left.
Collins, the clear and obvious challenger to Bridges’ leadership has herself been trying to play two games at once. She’s banked her reputation as a fearsome politician who sits on National’s right, but her recent media has presented a more centrist image: she’s championed gun law changes, and joked along with Anika Moa on TV.
One of the most misquoted political maxims is Machiavelli’s advice that it is better to be feared, than loved. That’s only half right — the full quotation is that it’s better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.
No one knows that better than Judith Collins; “If you can’t be loved, then best to be feared,” reads a leaked text message to Cameron Slater published in the 2014 book Dirty Politics. Collins’ path to the leadership, and indeed the Beehive, could rest on her convincing her colleagues she’s capable of being both. Machiavelli would be proud.