Can National win a 4th or even a 5th term?

My answer up until the election result was no.

I had even mentally drafted a blog post intended for the day after the election, in case of a victory, in which somewhat somberly I would have stated that while it is great National got a third term, MPs should realise that this is probably their last term in Government. The post would have been about how they need to secure the policy gains of the last six years, so as many of them as possible can’t be reversed, and also how if they can go into opposition with a relatively solid vote, then maybe there will be just two terms in opposition.

The nature of the election result has changed that. A fourth, or even a fifth term, is now a very credible possibility. I’m not saying a probability, but definitely a credible possibility. Here’s why:

  1. National’s 48% is the sort of result you get in your first term, not your last term
  2. The left vote totaled just 36%, and they need to grow this by 12% if they want to be able to govern, without being dependent on what Winston may decide
  3. The Conservatives could well make 5% in 2017, giving National an extra buffer
  4. John Key is now very likely to contest the 2017 election. Previously I would have said it was 60/40 at best.
  5. Labour’s leadership battle is turning off the public, and may leave the party divided and wrecked

Media have already started to say it is hard to see how Labour can be competitive in 2017. Tracy Watkins writes:

Whoever wins the battle over the Labour leadership may already have lost the war.

David Cunliffe’s extraordinary attack on his caucus and his rivals for the leadership over the past 24 hours seems to leave no way back from a bloody and divisive three-year battle for control of the caucus.

Down that path leads to defeat again in 2017; the party will be so focused on its internal battles it will have lost sight of the real war, which is to reach past the sectional interests in Labour and reconnect with the voters who will decide the next Government.

Also Charlie Gates at Stuff writes:

Labour could be out of power until 2020, based on analysis of average voting patterns over nearly 100 years.

Analysis of voting figures from 1919 to 2014 reveals the trends behind the power struggle between National and Labour.

If those trends continue, it could mean Labour will be in opposition until 2020, although political trends can easily be disrupted by scandals and unexpected developments.

With the leadership again up for grabs, the figures show that when Labour appoints a leader while in opposition it takes the party an average of 4.6 years to regain power. That would put its recovery beyond the 2017 election and closer to 2020.

Watkins also earlier said:

Divided. Chaotic. At war. There is even glum talk in Labour about a six-year project to rebuild from last Saturday’s defeat.

Six years would deliver National a fourth term. Possibly even a fifth. If Labour MPs think they know the meaning of despair now, try a 12- or 15-year stint in Opposition.

Here’s where it gets grim for Labour. Their 2011 result was meant to be like National’s 2002 result – their worst result in 90 years etc. Now National won six years later, but that was after they got to within 2% of Labour of 2005, and with the Brash phenomena which saw the vote increase 17%. And that was followed by the Key phenomena.

Labour though did not increase in 2014. They went backwards. Their 2014 result was not National’s 2005, but a repeat of 2002. So to win, Labour probably needs six years, plus a leader either capable of galvanising public support as Brash was, or appealing to middle NZ as Key was.  As Labour has neither of those, this is why Labour winning even in 2020 can not be assured. National has a chance to be a very long-term Government.

But having said all that, a fourth term is still difficult. It has not happened since 1969 – 45 years ago. Voters do tire of Governments, and the biggest challenge to National is likely to be itself. So what does National need to do to win in 2014. Here’s my list.

  1. Continue to rejuvenate. What National did in its second term with significant ministerial renewal and massive caucus renewal needs to continue. The reshuffle in the next few days should be more than tinkering. The future leadership of the party needs to be given opportunities to prove they can handle more demanding portfolios, so they can ascend to the front bench eventually. That must of course be balanced with having confidence they can handle more politically demanding portfolios.
  2. A fresh team in 2017. I do not believe National will win a fourth term with a Government front bench that looks near identical to the one elected in 2008. In early 2017 there should be a quite profound number of retirements of senior Ministers, to allow a new front bench to contest the 2017 election. Of course John Key must remain (sorry Bronagh – Italy will have to wait a bit longer), but others should look at retiring while on top.
  3. Fresh ideas are needed. The public will not give you a fourth term just for being good managers. a Government can not look like it has run out of ideas and steam. Every Minister should be asked to identify at least three significant policy reforms in their area which can be implemented over the next three years.
  4. Don’t get arrogant. It is very tempting to get arrogant about 2017 while Labour is going through a civil war. The danger is not Labour, it is National. Don’t put the boot into Labour too much. The public may see it as the 18 year old picking on the six year old. Yes of course there will be some mocking in general debate, but don’t get arrogant in question time, or generally with the public. Stay focused on what matters – the economy, jobs, wages, schools and hospitals – not Labour’s infighting. Leave that to the bloggers 🙂
  5. Keep connected with your communities. MPs all need a decent holiday, and should take them. But next year is when National MPs should start door knocking again. Don’t leave it until election year, when it looks like all you want is their vote. You have an advantage that most of the public don’t want to hear from Labour at the moment, but they do want to hear from National. Both electorate and list MPs should be door knocking in every electortate in NZ next year – including Ministers. Also don’t get third termitis and as Ministers start refusing to meet with sector groups because you think  you know what they will say. Reputations for inaccessibility can damage a Government.
  6. Start work on candidate selections next year also. Identify good candidates, and work with them to plan their best way into Parliament. We need more female candidates especially.
  7. Start thinking leadership succession. National is lucky they will keep John Key for this term, and if they get a fourth term, most of that term. But he will retire at some point, or National will lose in 2017. National will need a credible replacement Prime Minister or Opposition Leader. Preferably a number of options. The public need to know them well, and have confidence  in them, when succession does happen.
  8. Look to build a relationship with NZ First MPs you can work with. Don’t treat them as the Opposition, even though they will oppose much of what the Government does. They have 11 MPs, and may hold the balance of power in 2017. I doubt many of them will want to go near Labour, so there is an opportunity there for National. Winston is very problematic, as always, but he may not be there for ever.
  9. Deliver tax cuts aimed at low and middle income New Zealand. It’s the best way to boost incomes for all New Zealanders, and provides a great contrast to Labour who regard tax cuts as a necessary evil, rather than a good.
  10. Start a conversation about what the relationship between the Crown and Maori will be like, as the final few historical grievances are settled. Ignoring the issue is not wise.

National on 48% is better positioned than one could have hoped to get a fourth term. And Labour has very serious issues. But a fourth term is not easy. In fact it ha snot happened for 45 years. It will be damn hard work to make it happen, but it is now possible. It is up to National, not Labour, if the public decide they should get a fourth term.  It will need more than steady as it goes. It needs further renewal, fresh policy ideas, humility and lots of hard work to stay connected with the community.

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