This piece was first published on 22nd January 2015. We republish it today to mark the resignation yesterday of John Key as Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Earlier this week I met John Key, New Zealand’s prime minister, and I interviewed him for The Times (£). It’s often said that he’s the conservative leader who David Cameron most admires in the world. They are certainly both different kinds of conservative – both supporting gay marriage and action on climate change, for example. Mr Cameron would certainly like to share Mr Key’s record of success, too. Key won 47.3 per cent of the vote in last September’s New Zealand general election. He won 47 per cent in 2011 and 45 per cent when he was first elected in 2008. No British PM since 1974 – not Blair nor Thatcher – has added to their party’s percentage of the vote since their governments were first elected. What should we know about John Key? Here are ten thoughts.
- Upwardly mobile: Key is now a multimillionaire – having been a very successful financial trader. The New Zealand Left tried to paint him as someone who wouldn’t understand ordinary voters’ concerns and used pictures of his grand house in attack ads against him. The attacks bounced off. Key was brought up by his single mum in a council house (or a state house as Kiwis call them). Voters liked the idea of a self-made man coming home from making a success of himself in the New York and London markets and wanting to help his country succeed too. As Boris Johnson shows you don’t need a rags-to-riches style story to appeal to all classes but the kind of life story that the likes of Key and Sajid Javid have does help blunt class war attacks.
- No surprises: Key has enacted some tough reforms included a rebalancing of the tax system that saw consumption taxes rise and income taxes on entrepreneurs fall. He’s privatised state assets, deregulated, introduced stricter welfare-to-work rules – enacting more than 120 liberalisation measures in total. He’s acted like a very conventional, small government conservative – trimming most budgets except health, education and science. But one of his key rules is “no surprises”. Voters punish politicians who spring unpopular or tough measures on them without warning. David Cameron’s push for gay marriage, Stephen Harper’s reform of party political financing and Tony Abbott’s unexpectedly severe budget cuts all fall into this category and have got all of them into electoral trouble.
- No security in standing still: Speaking at the UK’s Institute of Directors last Monday morning Key was optimistic about the world economy – arguing that, because of the fracking revolution, the reduction in the oil price is likely to be a long-term boon. He warned against complacency, however, and predicted that China would out-compete Europe in the years to come if the likes of Spain, Italy and France didn’t undertake fundamental reforms of their pensions and welfare systems and their labour markets. Convincingly, he argued that governments don’t provide comfort for voters by ducking tough challenges but by meeting them.
- Controlled immigration is a good thing: Net immigration into New Zealand is running at twice the rate (in terms of per head of population) than it is into the UK but Key has sold it as a good thing – arguing that sick economies lose talented people but strong economies attract them. New Zealand’s property market faces some of the same issues as the UK’s but there is one big difference: New Zealand decides who enters their country. It has open borders with Australia but, as Key told me, “no one thinks we are going to be overrun by Australians. I would argue that stopping immigration was the wrong thing, but we could stop it if we wanted to.” When countries feel their borders are not under their government’s control they rightly worry.
- Patriotic: During my interview with Mr Key he talked about why he wants to change his country’s flag: “our current flag doesn’t mean anything to us”. He thinks a new flag built around the silver fern as worn on the All Blacks’ kit is likely to be recommended to the New Zealand people in a referendum. “If you go to look at the tombstones of our soldiers interred on the western front you’ll see a silver fern. When our rugby supporters want to demonstrate that they are a Kiwi they display a silver fern. It’s fifty-fifty if New Zealanders will vote for a new flag but Canadians wouldn’t go back to their old flag and with New Zealand determined to sell itself to the world we could benefit from building a clearer national identity.” Canada’s Stephen Harper is another conservative leader who has done much to assert a new post-“Grits” brand of patriotism. This Globe and Mail piece looks at his efforts built around “the Arctic, the military, national sports and especially the monarchy”.
- A sensible green: Like David Cameron (at least early David Cameron), Key has not questioned either the science behind man-made climate change or the need to do something about it but neither has he embraced the extremism of the NZ Greens (that, like in Germany, Canada and Australia have pulled the mainstream left away from the median voter). He ruled out doing any deal with the Greens during the last election campaign. The Greens in New Zealand, like in most of the world, are actually largely Red in their politics (something this excellent Bribe-O-Meter from the NX TaxPayers’ Union proves).
- Balanced ticket: Key’s deputy as PM and his finance minister is Bill English. Unlike the secular and relatively liberal Key, Mr English is a devout Catholic who opposes abortion, euthanasia and same-sex unions. US presidential bids avoid Massachusetts-Massachusetts tickets and so do all successful party leadership combinations. You either build broad churches within your party or you hemorrhage voters to other and possibly new parties.
- Polls, not pundits: One of the Crosby-Textor consultancy’s big messages to the political candidates that they work for across the world is to stay focused on the few big issues that matter to voters and that are winning issues: Stay with the big plan – don’t follow the changing mood. Crosby-Textor worked for Key, as they are working for Cameron. Key’s whole campaign was dogged by allegations of dirty tricks that dominated mainstream media coverage. Writing after the campaign Mark Textor was to the point: the voters, he said, weren’t interested in “a journalist they’d never heard of talking about bloggers they’d never read, and about typical political intrigue that had no relevance for them.” It takes guts to ignore the mainstream media chorus and follow a strategy – such as David Cameron is now doing on the election debates and raising the profile of the Greens, the SNP and the other left-wing threats to Labour’s vote. Key never talks about polls or focus groups in public but he is immersed in them. They’re much more important to politicians than any OpEd columnist (and I write that as an OpEd columnist!).
- Selfie conservatism: We keep waiting for Britain’s first social media election. Key certainly noticed a spike in its importance in the 2014 NZ election and claims to have been involved in 20,000 selfies during a one month campaign. 20,000 sounds a bit like William Hague’s 14 pints claim to me but the general point Key makes is still valid. On the basis that each selfie is shared with an average of 100 people and they’re often with very motivated supporters it’s an important new part of elections. Key believes that his ability to communicate directly with voters on YouTube, Twitter and especially through Facebook was important to cutting through the mainstream media and its trivialities (see point 8). Yes, he thinks social media is less trivial than the mainstream media. He might well be right.
- Global leadership: John Key is the new Chairman of the International Democratic Union, succeeding John Howard. In that role he’ll advance his vision of “radical incrementalism“, his experience of managing major crises (the Christchurch earthquakes) and caution about Bush-style military action. He may have a significant role in shaping the conservative moment in emerging countries in the years to come.