Conservative vote seeks a home
On one level, it has been a simple morality tale: Colin Craig didn’t practise what he preached, and his Conservative Party is now paying the price.
Whatever the exact details, Craig seems to have been the main agent of his own downfall – both in the breakdown of his working relationship with his press secretary, and in agreeing to the sauna interview that proved to be the last straw for his colleagues.
Big political parties can ride out scandals. Different rules apply to small, values-based parties that claim to be better than the rest.
Craig is now headed for political oblivion, but the political destination of the 95,598 people who voted for him last September is a fascinating consideration.
For a brief period, Craig’s party had seemed the obvious successor to New Zealand First, which has some major continuity problems looming.
By the time Parliament convenes after the 2017 election, Winston Peters will be 73 and (surely) will be preparing to exit the political stage.
Last year, 208,300 people voted for New Zealand First. Taken together, Craig and Peters cur- rently account for nearly 13 per cent of the New Zealand electorate.
In five years’ time at most, that sizeable bloc will have no natural home.
By and large, those are voters who feel angry, ignored and left behind.
Many of them still feel oppose the economic policies of the Rogernomics revolution and the asset sales and privatisations that followed in its wake – sins for which they hold Labour and National equally responsible.
On social policy, they regard both mainstream parties as being unacceptably liberal on family values, crime and immigration.
The size of this conservative ‘ plague on both their houses’ vote is remarkably constant. Last year, the combined Craig/Peters bloc won 12.63 per cent of the vote; back in 1984, Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party won 12.25 per cent.
Since 1984 however, Peters has been the only constant element in what has been a very unstable part of the political landscape.
In 1996, quasi- religious conservatives had almost found a home in Parliament when the two feuding Christian parties buried the hatchet and contested that year’s election as the Christian Coalition, under the joint leadership of Graeme Lee and Graham Capill.
Like Craig, they fell just short of the MMP threshold.
In 2002, the same constituency rallied again under the banner of Peter Dunne’s United Future party.
Once elected, the fundamentalists in Dunne’s caucus all but hijacked the party, until the 2005 electoral tide swept them out again.
It is a chequered history that makes Peters’ success in keeping a stable support base look all the more remarkable.
In its tendency to bicker and sub-divide, the conservative right has been a mirror image of the radical left, and New Zealand First will be liable to the same factionalism once Peters finally departs the scene.
As yet, Peters has given no sign of his succession plans – and the longer he remains, the less likely it is that Shane Jones would be interested in the job.
Over the next five years, will Labour or National become the chosen home of this large bloc of chronically dissatisfied voters?
How the major parties handle the eligibility rules for national superannuation may well decide that question.