How centre right parties win and lose elections these days

As New Zealand’s politicians contemplate a September election, are there lessons for them from the successes of right of centre parties in Australia, the US and UK – and their failure in Canada?

Caution is needed in drawing conclusions, given a few well-placed ballots can be the margin between radiant success and crushing failure.  Reference the election of Donald Trump with fewer votes than Hilary Clinton in 2016, and last year’s defeat of Andrew Scheer’s Canadian Conservatives despite winning more votes than Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party.

But one thing to reflect on is what right of centre parties stand for – and what the median voter thinks they stand for.

In recent years, there seem to have been two schools of thought on this question.  The first is inclined to accept a perceived centrist consensus: call this ‘me too’ conservatism.  Former British PM David Cameron was seen as a practitioner. The Nats nod in this direction when they tactically support Labour party measures.  The message to voters is one of practical and technocratic execution: ‘we’ll do things more sensibly and slowly’.

The other approach sees salvation in finding and emphasising dividing lines, while downplaying the consensus and continuity (although look past the rhetoric and you’ll see there is still plenty of this).  Trump is a natural, while Scott Morrison shows promise. Boris Johnson is the great success story for correctly judging that the median voter had a different Brexit policy preference to the median political scientist, civil servant and journalist.

That still leaves a lot to argue about when defining winning policies.  But perhaps one can draw some policy inferences from overseas experience.  Consider three elements:

Taxes.  Right voters may be able to live without tax cuts but they have shown themselves particularly allergic to tax increases.  They have little confidence that new revenues will be spent either well or on them. They have an inkling that new taxes start with the rich and then travel down the scale.

Spending. These voters also get that a cap on taxes constrains government spending choices.  But there doesn’t seem to be much mystery in identifying their expenditure preferences, which lie at the intersection of good schools and hospitals, more police, generous pensions and useful infrastructure (military included). Help for the working poor through the tax system is preferred to social welfare payments.  Both Trump and Johnson have tried to redistribute spending towards some of these priorities.

Regulation.  Right of centre politicians who have gone with the recent regulatory flow might be misjudging their supporters’ views on this issue.  While hostility to new rules rarely matches that attaching to new taxes, there is awareness that regulation is frequently driven by interest groups and, whatever its merits, often has unexpected and ignored costs.  Trump has attacked large chunks of the Obama regulatory legacy, with economic payoffs but seemingly without electoral hostility. Boris talks a good game, but has yet to deliver.

These same right of centre voters also share some common perceptions about the other side.  They think left of centre politicians are overly influenced by interest groups, spend less wisely, overpromise and under-deliver, and are always on the lookout for more money to spend.

Something like the government’s Provincial Growth Fund showcases the dividing line.  Centre right voters are more likely to pick up on poor value projects and handouts to mates. Centre lefties tend towards more optimism on the benefits, and less concern for the risks (including the risk of having to personally contribute through taxes).

But it’s a lazy politician who relies on these broad differences alone to float him or her back into office.  Outside New Zealand, the successful contenders have been willing to tackle issues which elite opinion deemed intractable in the current political environment: Boris on Brexit, Trump on immigration, Morrison on climate costs. 

One issue which continues to prove intractable in many places, and not just in New Zealand, is the inability to build cheaper houses.  Labour made it a flagship issue. After two years of stasis, the government hopes that an industry accord and better coordination will see things right.

National, seeing itself as the ‘practical party’, might ask itself if this issue has become intractable because procedural, development, environmental, building standards and industry requirements have implicitly been given higher priority.  Because if it can’t come up with something better than an ‘action plan’, its own voters might see it as an admission of ‘me too’. And the lesson from overseas seems to be that ‘me too’ might not be the most successful strategy.

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