A New Majority Nirvana Out Of Reach of National
By Paulo Politico
New Zealand’s New Majority nirvana has not been realised by the conservative National Party. Nor will it be realised under its current leader. To take power, core voter constituencies of Maori voters, Pacific Islands voters, trade unionists, state house tenants, tertiary students, beneficiaries have to be won over. But National has seldom given priority to such groups. Indeed to do so would erode into its small, selective group of core supporters.
When Richard Nixon was re-elected President of the United States in 1972, he talked of a ‘New Majority”. By that he meant a broad coalition of support, embracing his candidacy and the policies he espoused.
Nixon successfully maintained the support of conservative American voters while gaining key new voting constituencies – blue collar workers, union families, Catholic voters, and voters with only grade school educations. Collectively these groups delivered Nixon over 60 percent of the popular vote and 49 of the 50 states (losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia).
The idea that a conservative political figure could win support from voters traditionally sympathetic to centre-left parties and candidates became a seductive goal, only achieved by a select few. One of those people was Ronald Reagan, who won back-to-back landslide victories in 1980 and 1984. His candidacy won massive endorsement (particularly in 1984) from “Reagan Democrats”, who switched their allegiance from the centre-left to the conservative right.
Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide victory in Great Britain (winning a parliamentary majority in excess of 140 seats) demonstrated how New Majority politics was not confined to presidential elections. John Howard’s landslide victory at the 1996 Australian Federal Election is a more recent example of a conservative New Majority in a parliamentary contest.
Here in New Zealand the New Majority nirvana has not been realised by the conservative National Party. Nor will it be realised under its current leader.
The core constituencies of voters National would have to win over are the same constituencies that National has seldom given priority to – Maori, Pacific Island people, the trade union movement, State house tenants, tertiary students, and beneficiaries.
In 2002 Bill English endeavoured to create his own New Majority by appealing to Maori to switch allegiance and support National. Cynics argued (correctly) that the move was a knavish grab for Maori votes, not Maori hearts.
English and his sole Maori MP, Georgina teHueHue, pleaded for acceptance. National selected Maori candidates on its list. Hekia Parata was selected contest Wellington Central and Tau Henare was selected to contest Te Atatu. National even fronted at Ratana Pa for the first time in the party’s history.
Maori were not moved by National’s plea for party votes. Despite his posturing at Ratana, English’s National Party was ignored by Maori who voted for Labour en masse.
Maori reaction to the conservative National Party is interesting. Maori have dabbled with the non-Labour option only once, in 1996, voting instead for New Zealand First. It was a costly decision, with New Zealand First electing to go into a formal coalition with National, following two months of protracted negotiation. For Maori the decision was an anathema, their votes effectively being used to prop up a government that pursued an anti-Maori and anti-worker policy agenda. Maori votes were being used to quash attempts to restore income-related rents, prevent the introduction of a population-based funding formula in health, and to endorse the spiralling increase in tertiary fees.
Maori voters reacted by returning to Labour in huge numbers. Labour won six out of six Maori electorates in 1999, while both New Zealand First and National crashed – attracting little support. Maori returned to Labour and looked set to settle down for a long-term partnership.
English’s bold vision of National’s Maori renaissance was premature because his vision was purely opportunistic and political. He failed to understand that Maori support for Labour was not just a reflection of the party’s longstanding relationship with Ratana. The relationship has been reinforced by Labour’s genuine commitment to advancing the economic and social status of tangata whenua.
Labour endorses the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi as a strategic partnership document. Consideration of Maori candidates on Labour’s list has been a key feature in the party’s thinking under MMP.
Compare Labour’s respect for Maoridom with National’s newfound interest and it’s not hard to understand why National won few Maori converts. Maoridom will not be convinced to join a conservative New Majority just for the sake of fulfilling English’s vision of “cool” and “trendy” National Party.
Opponents within National, such as Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson, argued that trying to appeal to Maori voters (who would not vote for National anyway) potentially alienated a lot of traditional conservative National voters. The inference being if you try and be all things to all people, you risk not really appealing to anyone.
Williamson’s synopsis is correct for two reasons. Firstly the key ingredient for a New Majority result is that every successful conservative (Nixon, Reagan, the Thatcher government, the Howard Coalition) was opposed by an alternative that was fundamentally unelectable. Nixon’s 1972 landslide was due to the fact that he was opposed by the quixotic ultra-liberal, George McGovern. Reagan won because he was opposed by the exhausted Jimmy Carter (1980) and the unelectable Walter Mondale (1984).
The extent of size of Margaret Thatcher’s victories in Great Britain was greatly exacerbated by internal divisions in the opposition Labour Party. John Howard’s massive victory in 1996 came after 13-years of continuous dominance by the Federal Australian Labor Party. It is quite clear that at no time in recent years has a conservative candidate, government or party, won a New Majority when the alternative to the conservative option is a credible and well-organised social democratic party.
The second barrier to a New Majority, which is absolutely relevant in New Zealand politics, is the electoral system. Proportional representation generally prohibits one or two parties from exclusively representing a broad cross-section of voters. Individual parties need to maintain an electoral base and not compromise that base unnecessarily.
National has never quite come to terms with the fact that Labour is a credible and well respected government. Many within National have yet to come to terms with that party’s status as an opposition player. National’s hierarchy seems miffed that voters would actually contemplate voting for Labour.
Secondly, English ignored the reality of MMP in 2002. He foolishly wondered away from his bedrock of supporters, arrogantly assuming they would never contemplate a shift to a party such as United Future. English’s arrogance was illustrated by his narcissistic appeal for Maori votes.
Only he (and perhaps teHueHue) thought it possible that he would win support among Maori simply by turning up at Ratana. Not surprisingly, Maori were unmoved by the courtship. National suffered its worst ever result in 2002, and few Maori were tempted to vote for English.
The New Majority is seldom a wholesale endorsement per se. The New Majority is an electoral aberration that doesn’t last for long. The market forces of demand and supply require parties to stand for something. When the message is blurred or lacking in credibility an alternative is occasionally contemplated.
Nixon’s New Majority evaporated in less than two years. Although Reagan won two presidential elections, his presidency ended in deadlock with the Democrats winning back control of the Senate in 1986. Thatcher’s reign was long and enduring, but Tony Blair’s Labour Party eventually trounced the Conservatives. The Liberal-National coalition is only dominant at Federal level in Australia. Labor dominates every other Australian state and territory government.
Here in New Zealand the New Majority is only a pipedream for the National Party. Hence the realities of English’s recent move away from actively courting Maori, to a more traditional position, deliberately indulging in Maori bashing.
The failure to court Maori voters is a valuable lesson for aspirant conservative leaders in New Zealand politics. Candidates and parties must appeal to votes through policy and a credible record of representation, not gimmicks and clichés. Even English, hand on heart, would probably admit that I’m right.