Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
The National Party’s defeat has been so comprehensive that few in the party seem optimistic they will recover anytime soon. Falling from 47% in 2017 to just 27% (which might drop as low as 25% once special votes are counted), is one of the most severe collapses in New Zealand’s electoral history. And there are so many other election statistics that paint a picture of a party in crisis. The fact that National came second in the party vote count in 68 out of 72 electorates, and losing electorates such as Ilam, New Plymouth and Rangitata shows something extremely serious has gone on amongst National’s traditional support base.
For more on National’s electoral collapse on Saturday, see Marc Daalder’s The scale of National’s collapse and Labour’s surge. He points out that “National lost a whopping 15 of its 41 electorate seats”.
Unfortunately for National, the crisis is far from over. Incredibly destabilising infighting and leaking to the media is continuing, according to Newshub’s Tova O’Brien who reports: “They have only been back at Parliament one day after their devastating defeat but already National MPs are leaking, telling Newshub they are predicting a coup” – see: National MPs already leaking, predicting leadership coup after devastating defeat. She reports that “After National’s massacre at the polls MPs are looking for scalps.”
On the subject of party leader Judith Collins, one National MP told O’Brien that it’s “highly, highly unlikely she’ll lead us into 2023”. And some told her that ex-Air New Zealand boss Christopher Luxon will challenge Collins. Newshub then spoke to Luxon, who “didn’t quite rule it out and didn’t quite dampen talk of leadership ambition when asked if he was ignorant of the rumours of his leadership ambitions.”
The blame game within National
There will now be significant soul searching in National over the result, especially in what were thought to be safe National electorates. Of course, some of National’s decline was self-inflicted and some of it beyond their control, and this is well explained in David Farrar’s blog post, Factors in National’s loss.
For Farrar, some of the factors beyond National’s control were: “Covid-19; The Government’s response to Covid-19; Jacinda Ardern”. In contrast, factors that they had some control over included: “Having seven different Leaders and Deputy Leaders in one term; Jami-Lee Ross; Three years of leaks to Newshub; Hamish Walker; Andrew Falloon; A fiscal hole; SFO charging donors to National”.
For some idea of the turmoil in the party – especially during the campaign – see Richard Harman’s article today, Where National’s campaign went wrong. He reports that the party’s campaign “was stopped and started twice and ultimately ended up being pretty much designed and run by Leader Judith Collins” whose “propensity to ‘wing it’ led to the campaign’s disastrous last week”.
According to his sources, National was “hampered by a shortage of funds at party headquarters” and due to Covid the campaign was left “without an over-arching theme or message.”
In another article, Harman reports that there is now a huge mood for change within the wider party, which could also lead next month to the party president Peter Goodfellow being replaced by former MP and Speaker David Carter, who is standing for election to the party’s board. Change in this position might throw Judith Collins a lifeline of sorts: “It would seem highly unlikely that Judith Collins would be dumped in the next few months. Instead, the focus might shift on to Goodfellow, and his head may be the sacrifice” – see: Heads on the block.
Harman has also published an excerpt from an unnamed former National Minister about the state of the party. This calls for a “root-and-branch cleanout of the party organisation, a much more rigorous candidate selection process to avoid the embarrassments of the last few years, a rebalancing of the power and organisational arrangements between the caucus and the Party, a new Board and president, and a widespread policy platform review involving the grassroots of party supporters as well as the caucus MPs.”
This article also says party members have been warming to the public criticisms that former leader Simon Bridges has been making of the campaign. He’s reported as being highly critical of the lack of direction from the leadership, complaining that MPs weren’t given information on campaign messaging.
His former deputy leader, who had been the campaign chair until Bridges was ousted, has also been highly vocal, going on TVNZ Breakfast to say “National was ‘disorganised’ and didn’t ‘articulate an alternative’ Government well enough to voters” – see 1News’ National needs to take a ‘damn good look at itself’, Paula Bennett says following election loss. Bennett says “there wasn’t an absolute clarity of message”.
According to Bennett, under her management of the campaign there had been a strategy built up over 12 months which then “went out the door” when the position was taken off her with the change of leadership. She says this was “was the start of the end” for the party’s chances.
Other former National MPs have been highly critical too. Former Attorney General from the John Key Government, Chris Finlayson, said on RNZ that “It’s probably a good thing that there’s been a bit of a clean-out. I think the phone’s been off the hook now for some months” and “any rational observer looking back at the last 18 months would say the National Party has performed very very poorly and they got what they deserved” – you can listen to the interview here: Former National MP Chris Finlayson: ‘a thoroughly deserved kick’.
In another interview, Finlayson said a review of the party and campaign will be helpful: “They’ll look at themselves and look at the litany of cockups since they were bequeathed such a huge legacy by Bill English at the beginning of 2018.”
On Newstalk ZB, Finlayson is reported as calling the “the current party and its politicians arrogant and complacent, infused with a born to rule superiority complex that was unfounded” – see: You can’t blame anyone else – National was basically unelectable.
The writer of that report is broadcaster Andrew Dickens, who says he’s voted for National for the last three elections, but believes “this is a disaster and their only hope is to realise how and why they got it so wrong over the past three years. It is all their own fault and they should not shift the blame.” He elaborates: “National was basically unelectable. A disorganised shambles with a confused message. A party at war with itself as shown by the Denise Lee leaks.”
Attempts to rebuild
National supporter Liam Hehir believes the party has a chance to rebuild, but this won’t happen if they are debilitated by infighting: “I would put it to them that the shenanigans of the past year were utterly demoralising. It would be better for people involved in the party not to compound things by making further rash decisions based on their interests as individuals” – see: The roots of National’s fall.
Similarly, former minister and campaign manager in the last National government, Steven Joyce, has spoken out to say “I think it’s really important that people stop talking out of school” – see the NZ Herald’s National campaign reviewer to leaking MPs – ‘pipe down’. He says it’s time for an end to the factional fighting, which is only based on personal ambition.
Broadcaster Mike Hosking also argues that National has to stop the feuding, complaining, “They seem self-absorbed, the leaking is pathetic, the self-interest is obvious, the factionalism is a problem” – see: National needs to avoid over-reacting to election loss. Hosking also warns against National over-analysing their problems, and over-reacting to the defeat. Instead of carrying out radical changes to the party, they should be realistic about what can and should be altered.
National needs to look at the big picture
There is a risk that National’s attempts to rebuild and evaluate what led to its decline will focus only on personnel or organisational issues. The party actually needs a much bigger and broader lens. It especially needs to think about what sort of ideological role there is for a centre-right party in the Covid-age. This is the main point of a very thoughtful analysis written yesterday by party pollster David Farrar, which is published on his subscriber-only patreon account – see: A strategic challenge for National in a post Covid world (paywalled).
Farrar’s general point is that rightwing parties are currently out of sync with the public’s current desire for a more interventionist state, due to Covid: “we live in a time where many people see the state as having been able to save hundreds or thousands of lives, and are grateful to it. This shows in the election result. We of course also saw the power of the state after the Christchurch earthquakes. A National-led Government spent well over $20 billion rebuilding Christchurch. But people don’t fear an earthquake as much as they do Covid-19. Bill English has spoken well in the past on how the state is very good at some things, but very bad at other things. He is right, but that is a nuanced message which can be hard to convey. It is very possible that for the next decade or so New Zealanders will feel much more positive about a big state than they have in the past.”
It is not clear that National currently has this type of necessary intellectual underpinnings to allow it to stay relevant. This is reiterated by University of Auckland economist Robert MacCulloch, who has written in the NBR about the ten things National got wrong in the campaign in terms of its policies and positioning – see: Where National went wrong: An economist’s perspective (paywalled).
Generally, MacCulloch’s point is National has failed to develop bold and innovative new policies that are distinguishable from Labour. Here’s one of his problems with National at the moment: “National is lacking clear objectives for our economy and country, a set of principles, and a framework to help get there. There are only small differences between its plans and Labour’s. Its guiding philosophy still seems to be some version of a conservative ‘steady as she goes’ mantra, just like the one rolled out under the previous National government. In the presence of the greatest health and economic crisis in a century, that line now sounds faintly ridiculous.”
He argues National appears to have “terrible advisers” and needs to get some serious thinkers involved in devising its policy framework: “Being anti-intellectual has not served the National Party well. By contrast, Labour has sought advice from world heavyweight thinkers, including Nobel Laureates, the attempts of National to portray them as shallow on this front notwithstanding.”
Finally, a big part of National’s problems stem from its decline as a mass membership party. The party organisation is now dominated by a corporate-style board which some say is ineffective and moribund, leading to some poor candidate selections. For a very good examination of what some National insiders are saying about reform of the party organisation, see Thomas Coughlan’s What does it take to bring National back from the dead?.