Epsom and the ACT Leadership

It’s pleasing to see three contenders going for either the Leadership or the nominations. Both these decisions will be made by the Board, and they are important decisions.

The first decisions is the easier one – the candidate for Epsom. I think the obvious and safe choice is .

Retaining Epsom is critical to ACT’s survival. No one thinks they can get 5% in 2014, so they must retain Epsom to stay in Parliament.

ACT did win Epsom in 2011, but a lot of feedback I got from National voters is they voted very reluctantly for the ACT candidate. One of them joked that it didn’t hurt as much as the thought it would.

I think centre-right voters in Epsom will have little reluctance to vote for John Boscawen. He is basically one of them. As Andrea Vance details, his story is from riches to rags to riches, and everyone who deals with him says he is an incredibly decent well motivated man who has managed to never burn any bridges with colleagues – which in the ACT Party is an extraordinary feat.

Epsom voters would be very comfortable with having John as their local MP. They know what they’ll be getting, and even if ACT’s brand today is somewhat bruised and battered, I think Boscawen can retain the seat for ACT. Any other candidate would be running a bigger risk of not winning.

So the Epsom decision is, I think, an easy one. The decision on the leadership is a harder one.

Again Boscawen would be a safe pair of hands for the leadership. He has been an MP, he would have a fairly united party, and you would not risk the problems of 2011 when the ACT Leader is pushing one policy (cannabis decriminalisation) and the Epsom candidate is fighting against it (knowing it would go down badly in Epsom).

However is a very attractive candidate. He is basically a pure classical liberal. In the televised minor party leader’s debates, he could well shine and attract back to ACT those who are both economically and socially liberal. Around 10% to 15% of the population or more find such a message appealing – the challenge is whether ACT as a party and brand can be credible to them. Whyte is free from the baggage of the past, so could be seen as the start of a new generation.

Of course the danger for Whyte is that if he is leader, he would only become an MP if ACT get at least 1.2% of the vote (they got 1.1% in 2011). So his job would be to make sure ACT get at least 1.2%. Boscawen’s would be to win Epsom.

But there are risks to splitting the jobs, as I detailed above. The safer route is Boscawen for both, and he is saying Kenneth Wang will be his Deputy Leader which could help attract Asian votes. They would need 2.0% to get a third MP, and that looks very challenging.

However the downside of Boscawen for both is that a generational change may not occur for some time, and may not be possible in the future. Whyte I think does have a greater ability to appeal to young urban professionals.

One other advantage of a split is if Whyte is Leader and Boscawen MP for Epsom, then my strong recommendation would be Whyte does not become a Minister. For a small party, best to keep the leader outside the Government focused on selling the party message. Boscawen hence could become a Minister if National is re-elected, helping implement ACT policies, while Whyte sells the party’s message.

So there are pros and cons for both Whyte and Boscawen for Leader. In the end it will come down to what appetite for risk the ACT Board is willing to consider, and if they think the potential benefits are realistic and outweigh the risks.

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