• The Candidates’ Dilemma

    As the contenders for the leadership of the National party line up at the starting gate, they are each faced with a dilemma that confronts anyone seeking the leadership of a political party in a democracy.

    This is because – for them – the leadership of their party is presumably not an end in itself, but is merely a stepping stone to the ultimate goal of becoming Prime Minister.  The contenders are embarking, in other words, on a two-stage process that requires them to win two elections in succession and to do so by gaining support from two quite separate and very different electorates.

    The first contest demands that they should convince their own party members and activists that they are the candidate best able to represent and remain faithful to the party’s central values and goals and to sell those values and goals to the wider public; while the second contest will be about  persuading the (largely non-political) wider electorate that they are not so preoccupied with the party battle that they lack the breadth of vision and understanding that will equip them to tackle and resolve society’s wider problems.

    The difficulty is this.  Those whose vote will decide the party leadership are just a very particular sub-set of the wider public; they will tend to be the party warriors, intent on winning the party battle, attaching great importance to ideological issues and requiring evidence that the fight will be carried to the enemy.  They will be looking for proof of single-mindedness, aggression and the strength never to back down.  Politics is, after all, a tough business and it demands the capacity to give, and take, some pretty rough treatment – and I say this with feeling, as someone who stood unsuccessfully in 1992 for the leadership of the British Labour Party.

    But even those voters whose votes decide the leadership (as well as the candidates themselves) will have to have half an eye on the electoral contest yet to come at general election time.  What would be the point of demonstrating to the party faithful all that they might wish in terms of strength and toughness and ideological purity, if it is achieved at the price of alienating those whose support will ultimately decide who wins a general election?

    The contenders, in other words, are fighting two separate battles.  The first is to win the support of their own party’s “attack dogs” – but following immediately, and spilling over from that exercise, is the battle for the support of the uncommitted voters in the wider public.

    That is the dilemma that now faces the contenders, particularly the two who seem most likely to emerge as the front-runners, Judith Collins and Simon Bridges.  It is a dilemma that is, for both of them, extremely difficult to resolve.

    Judith Collins exemplifies the point.  She is reported as opining that the National party has moved “too far to the left,” a view calculated to appeal to the National party’s conservatives and ideologues.  Her problem is that while it may appeal to party members who want to see a tougher line – the party’s “red necks” perhaps – it may not play so well with those voters who are not so committed.

    It is, of course, a view that fits well with her carefully cultivated image as a tough operator –remember her role as mentor to Cameron Slater and how she seemed positively to relish the soubriquet of “Crusher” Collins.  But even those party members who would welcome that kind of aggressive approach might pause to wonder whether the floating voter will be attracted or repelled.

    Simon Bridges is another instance.  His reputation largely rests, for good or ill, on his aggressive performances in various television studios.  Many of his supporters will welcome and celebrate his “take no prisoners” approach but what will be seen by some as strength will seem to others to be combativeness for its own sake.

    In either case, sweetness and light would certainly be in short supply – and the lesson of our current politics is that our voters want to be led by people they like.  John Key cannot be resurrected (I think) but some of his famous affability might not go amiss.

    Bryan Gould

    17 February 2018



1 Comment

  1. Helen says: February 18, 2018 at 5:49 amReply

    John Key, who wanted to be Prime Minister from the time he was 10 years old, affable? Does the smile of a crocodile reach its eyes? Did yonder Cassius not have a lean and hungry look from the time he materialised to take over from William the Hapless? Have we not had a long time inside a distorting mirror with a Cheshire cat grinning (affably) upon us before it dissolved into a figment of a memory of bared teeth in what looked from a distance like a grin?
    Nice column again – thank you!

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