Zach Castles was a political adviser to two senior ministers in John Key’s National-led Government. He now works in public affairs in London.
New Zealand’s National Party elected a new leader on Tuesday: his name is Simon Bridges. The leadership of the conservative opposition in a country of 4.5 million people may not seem of great significance, particularly when viewed in the context of the challenges its British counterpart faces at present. But the broader long-term political challenges facing centre-right parties are not dissimilar across different countries.
Who is Bridges?
Bridges is a 41 year old former crown prosecutor who, like Theresa May (and many other MPs), studied at Oxford. He was a senior minister in the John Key and Bill English governments. Socially conservative and economically dry, it can be expected he will change the party’s policy agenda, although he has said he supports its present direction, and believes that its existing economic platform is strong.
He is the first Maori leader of a major political party in New Zealand, and could well become New Zealand’s first Maori Prime Minister. He is unashamedly ambitious, and focused on ensuring that the National Party reassumes government at the next General Election in 2020. Polling well, more than financially buoyant and administratively competent and unified, it is in a strong position. There is no real issue dividing the parliamentary party or “caucus”, in the way that Brexit has divided Conservative MPs.
Taking on the government
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has now been in office for nearly five months and is unquestionably popular. But there is an increasing view that her broad “vision statements” and lack of detail will begin to grate with the public at some point.
The Labour Party unexpectedly won the 2017 election, and its campaign consisted of not much more than vague slogans about values. Bridges made this point in his first press conference as leader, describing the Prime Minister as a nice, well-intentioned person who has found herself almost accidentally leading a government. Ardern inherited the leadership of a country in almost rude economic health, with a growth rate that is the the envy of the western world. For now, at least, her Government will be able to coast off the proceeds of its predecessor’s success. But worrying policy announcements, particularly in the industrial relations area, have already caused a marked fall in business confidence. Talks of a recession are gathering pace.
As his party’s leader, Bridges faces a weak government with a poorly defined sense of what it is doing. He is tasked with pursuing the government on every policy, every promise, every target that it sets, holding it to account and making mileage out of its mistakes, while at the same time preparing the National Party to look for a government-in-waiting in 2020.
A plan for New Zealand
Bridges will be giving a series of speeches during the coming weeks outlining his vision for New Zealand in greater detail. The Key-English Government was defined by record popularity – harnessed by moderate policy change during the global financial crisis, the prudent management of public services, and rebuilding Christchurch after the earthquakes in 2011.
The challenge now is not only to defend that record, but write a new and compelling chapter that is distinct. There is a strong argument that, since the National Party received the highest vote share, voters did not necessarily reject its policies at the last election: this is indeed true, but ensuring that voters will remember that far back in 2020 is ambitious.
Building greater confidence in centre-right values
The struggle for centre-right parties in the next decade means holding the ideological fort where necessary. Bridges has made clear that he stands for individual freedom, personal responsibility, competition, strong families and security: core National Party values, and indeed core centre-right values. From the reforms led by Margaret Thatcher through the pragmatism of David Cameron to the renewed focus on resolving the ‘burning injustices’ in society outlined by Theresa May – so, too, must the National Party, and its new leader, outline how it will inspire enough voters towards something not only compelling, but practical in its impacts.
Winning the next election
The Conservatives are in government, the National Party is out of government – but both are confronted with the same problem: how to continue to appeal to the electorate, and a generation, that is becoming increasingly more left-wing. In Britain, this was seen in the so-called ‘youthquake’ that arguably delivered 40 per cent of the vote share for Labour last year.
Analysis by YouGov last November found that just 15 per cent of under-30s said they would support the Conservatives. In New Zealand, substantial numbers of young people reportedly enrolled to vote ahead of the election. How National and other centre-right parties communicate their values and their story is critical to overcoming this. Failing that, centre-right parties will sleepwalk into a decade of social democratic rule in the western world.
In the same way that the Conservatives must cooperate with the DUP, National needs to strategise effectively over the next three years in order to grow the overall centre-right vote. New Zealand’s MMP electoral system means that multi-government is the norm: there has been no single party majority government in New Zealand since 1996. Parties form coalitions to build effective governments.
The National Party is the largest in parliament, but there are no other viable parties sufficient in number in the House that it could work with. How National manages this unique situation will be forefront of Bridges’ mind: it is fundamental to whether he will be able to govern after the next election. Of course, like Theresa May’s gamble to seek an outright majority in 2017, the National Party could attempt to defy gravity at the 2020 election and seek to get a majority of the vote share but perhaps it is worth pointing out that no party in New Zealand has won more than 50 per cent of the vote-share since 1951.
In an age of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, and the challenges they pose, the centre-right cannot rely on vague Ardern-style values statements to win elections. Nor can it run on turgid policy platforms. They must ask themselves what the practical effect of policy will be on voters’ everyday lives, whether it is in housing and health, education, social policy or climate change.
Bridges has already signaled that the National Party’s 2020 policy platform will be largely informed by work his MPs do in the regions and cities, listening to people’s concerns and their ideas for addressing them.