Harriet Maltby is a Government and Economics Researcher at the Legatum Institute and former Senior Parliamentary Assistant.
With the Obama glitterati of Messina, McGregor, Axelrod and Graf advising Westminster’s main parties, 2015 is set to be a re-run of our glossy Americanised 2010 election. Yet for the Conservatives to secure a majority, they should forget Washington and look instead to Wellington.
New Zealand abandoned its majoritarian Westminster FPTP voting system in the early 1990s for the proportional MMP system of Germany and Scotland. Coalition may be an inconvenience for David Cameron, but it is a structural design feature of modern New Zealand.
Yet recent polls put John Key, the Prime Minister, on course to make history on in September by gaining the first one-party majority since the electoral system was changed 21 years ago. His National party (the main NZ centre-right party) is riding high at 55 per cent in the latest poll.
Both Cameron and Key ride into an election to the rallying cry of economic turnaround. Only one seems able to convert this into the majority it deserves. What is behind the #TeamKey miracle, and what can the Conservatives learn it?
The most succinct statement comes from the close of a recently published unauthorised biography of John Key: “New Zealand feels content, stable and successful,” writes John Roughan in his unauthorised biography of Key, “with a Prime Minister who is easy to like and who inspires confidence.”
That confidence translates into impressive figures: New Zealand ranked fifth to the UK’s 16th in the 2013 Prosperity Index, coming in the top five for education (first), governance (second), social capital (third) and personal freedom (fifth). The UK does not rank in the top five for anything.
It is true that New Zealand was comparatively untouched by the global recession. It was in a much better starting position than the UK, with low government spending and government debt giving Bill English, the Finance Minister, a freedom that Osborne could only dream of. This year, growth is forecast at 3.4 per cent, with analysts hailing it as the ‘rock star’ economy of 2014.
Yet the UK is also forecast to grow 3.4 per cent this year: Britain is performing well: Cameron’s task is to make us believe it.
National, as it is known, appreciates just how to use economic success. Key has ensured that it has informed, not consumed, National’s narrative, arguing that “a strong economy is not an end in itself. It’s a way of delivering the things people care most about”. This vision leaves his opponents little space to carve their own narrative. The Tories have made the case that economic growth is good. They have so far failed to explain why. Like Key’s, this message must be visionary, value-led and justified by something other than wealth. Above all, it must resonate. This failure leaves Labour plenty of space – space that they are exploiting.
This goes some way to explain party performance. Neither Prime Minister faces an opposition that has set the world alight. Both Ed Miliband and his New Zealand counterpart, David Cunliffe, endure weekly criticism from colleagues and are languishing in personal polls. Yet whilst Key has closed down Cunliffe’s room for manoeuvre, Cameron has left ground unclaimed. It shows in the polls with Cunliffe’s Labour polling historic lows (24 per cent) and Miliband’s posting a consistent lead.
The #TeamKey miracle has two other critical assets. The strong message is backed by a strong Party that has proved capable of adaptation. National’s membership per capita is five times higher than that of the Conservatives, and whilst the structure has grown more centralised, dialogue remains. Conference is a chance to discuss and input on policy (voted upon by the Party Board). Ginger groups like the ‘Young Nats’ or the ‘Blue Libs’ are encouraged to lobby on policy and, where necessary, challenge the current view. National has strong foundations that work to inform and support the top structure. The Tories have much to learn.
Ultimately, at the heart of the success is Key himself. His leadership, policies and messaging are values-led. This clearly matters to the electorate, as broad criticism of Cunliffe runs ‘we don’t know who he is or what he stands for’. The value messaging from CCHQ is not dissimilar to National’s, but it lacks a uniting vision and has yet to find natural embodiment in its leader. Like Thatcher, Key achieves this embodiment effortlessly. It is working in Wellington and for the Tories to have any hope, it must be made to work in Westminster too.