Does Bridges have a plan after all?

National leader Simon Bridges. Photo: NZ Herald
National leader Simon Bridges. Photo: NZ Herald
As this week’s annual National Party conference began, media attention turned to the elephant not in the room — Jamie-Lee Ross. But there was another elephant noticeably missing from the room: doubts about Simon Bridges’ leadership.

Which is surprising, as late last year several political pundits suggested Mr Bridges had essentially already lost the National Party leadership. Preferred prime minister polls had been embarrassing for him despite the party continuing to chart in the mid-40s — a significant achievement for an opposition party struggling for oxygen amidst Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s media honeymoon.

The accepted wisdom was National would need a leadership candidate the country warmed to if not as much as it did to Ms Ardern, then certainly more than it was warming to Mr Bridges. But the conspicuous lack of leadership rumblings from the belly of the National Party suggests it may not have seen the situation that way.

Perhaps — and like it or not, National is a party full of political experience — Mr Bridges was chosen as leader with the full understanding he would never attempt to be as popular in the polls as Jacinda Ardern.

There is no denying Ms Ardern’s popularity has been a revelation for the core left-voting bloc. But the core left-voting bloc is not big enough to get her re-elected. It is the centre, "middle New Zealand", that swings behind one party or another every three years and essentially decides who will govern.

And that middle bloc did not overwhelmingly support left-of-centre policies at the last election. The recent polls suggest they don’t heavily support them now. Which may be the hunch Mr Bridges and his party are depending on.

Meanwhile, Ms Ardern’s government is ploughing forward with a strategy of considerably left-of-centre policy shifts. That is reasonable and expected of a government elected to power with a significant mandate for change. But it would be a stretch to label the 2017 election result that way.

The last government made both friends and enemies with its reluctance to part with too much taxpayer cash. And on election day in 2017, more than 44% of voters indicated that was the path the country should continue down. Yet that 44% — and however many New Zealand First voters were not wanting a Labour coalition — are watching a considerable loosening of the purse strings.

While none of this has anything to do with Simon Bridges, it could have everything to do with the strategy adopted by him and his party — that National believes the biggest weapon it will have come election time next year will not be its leader, but the current government’s track record.

It is unlikely in the next year a new National leadership candidate will appear capable of competing with Ms Ardern on charisma and likeability. The National Party may have looked at its ongoing strong polling performance, highlighting the government’s inability to convince National voters to switch allegiance, and decided it doesn’t care, that it won’t run a popularity campaign at all. By extension, that could mean no "get Jacinda" campaign — a welcome contrast from the "get Key" and "get Trump" narratives we have seen recently.

Instead, with big policy announcements planned for the coming year and a vocal shift towards environmental concerns, the National Party may have decided the New Zealand electorate is demanding being spoken to on a policy level. As such, and against considerable odds, Simon Bridges’ experience both inside and outside of Parliament — and his so-far successful ability to convey policy — may mean he’s on course to lead National into next year’s election, regardless of his preferred prime minister numbers.

An election fought primarily on policy can only be a healthy thing for New Zealand. Elections should be about contrasts and choices, about directions and details. Perhaps such a campaign was Mr Bridges’ plan all along.

Comments

Jacinda was a rising star of international socialism prior to her political achievements in NZ. Simon in is own field has also been very successful going to Oxford University so obviously has a high powered intellect.

Been a bit of a change. There has been no International Socialism since the 90's. Sure, there are socialist organisations, but they are not International. The threat is Right, not Left.

Jacinda was President of the International Union of Socialist Youth from 2008 to 2010. Online footage of her speaking at rallies in Eastern Europe are quite something.

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