If we want to gain insight into this election by looking at elections past, we have to look way back – to the last time National was as dominant in the polls, to a time with some uncanny similarities

Labour's descent to barely 30 percent in recent polls has prompted repeated comparisons to National's steep slide in 2002, when Bill English led National to its worst ever defeat. In this scenario, Phil Goff is this year's English and Labour is set for further pain as its support evaporates to 21 percent.

No, I don't buy it either. The comparison is riddled with flaws. For a start, the mood around Labour is one of disinterest, not the active dislike that National endured after its over-zealous performance in government in the 1990s. The 2002 reference is easy and popular merely because those working in and around parliament have personal memories of the event.

That said, the past is a great way to understand the present. So over the next two days I'm going to post on two elections that are worthy of comparison.

Today, I'm going to look at the 1951 election; tomorrow, the 1963. Both, I think, are more reflective of the national mood, the characters front of stage and where we sit in the political cycle.

So what happened in 1951? The answer begins in 1949, when the National Party won its first election, under the leadership of Sid Holland. The country had tired of Labour's long rule, since 1935, and of its leader Peter Fraser (often compared to Helen Clark), who had been in the top job for nine years. Looking to shake off the war-time dust from the nation's coat, voters turned instead to National's more optimistic message.

The comparisons to 2008 are obvious.

Those between Holland and Key are less so. Holland had come up through traditional political routes and was blooded early, first as the son of an MP, then as leader of various National-friendly organisations. He led his party to two losses before finally becoming Prime Minister.

The similarities, however, are that Holland took over from a lacklustre leader who had failed to gain popular traction. He was considered a fresh and dynamic face; he wasn't tarred by association with the difficult Depression years, just as Key crucially carries no baggage from the reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Holland, like Key, was considered a consolidator, an incrementalist and no great ideologue.

As in 2008, National's very first election win was built on not rocking the boat; it accepted that Labour's social welfare state was here to stay and won the electorate's support by promising minor change. You might have called them 'Labour lite'.

In its first term, National stuck to its knitting. It started steadily winding back the state - ending war-time food rations and reforming state housing, for example - but when the public mood seemed unwilling, Holland pragmatically backed away from his promise to end compulsory unionism. Change came slowly, some supporters frustrated by the lack of more decisive action.

Sound familiar?

The Key government's first term has been captured by catastrophe -- namely, the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes. The Holland government's first term was dominated by a single crisis - the 1951 Waterfront dispute. Back then, National used the uncertain times to present as a stable, practical government, while at the same time taking for itself vast powers.

It built a narrative around talking tough on law and order, prosperity and peace. Despite some economic danger signs, such as high inflation, people felt reassured. When the lockout grew into a fierce battle and the government took a hard line, voters turned to National in greater numbers, while Labour dilly-dallied, neither supporting nor condemning the unions.

The Labour leader was Walter Nash, and like Phil Goff, he had been around politics and government for more than 20 years. He had been Finance Minister under the first Labour government, and like Goff was widely considered a more than able minister and had a strong reputation overseas. But he couldn't find his feet as leader, especially in those first few years. Indeed, he was so indecisive, the running gag was that if asked his favourite colour, Nash would reply "plaid".(Labour was patient with Nash and he went on to become Prime Minister; modern politics doesn't allow Goff the same luxury).

The 1951 election was a single issue election in a way this year's won't be. But it comes at much the same time in the electoral cycle – with National seeking a second term after a long series of Labour governments. Three years on, the public was still tired of Labour and not interested in its overly-familiar leader, yet was enamoured with a National leader untarnished by the past and willing not to get ahead of a change-shy and world-wary public.

The good news for John Key is that those similar conditions provided a comfortable win for National – a watershed win and the last time any party has won more than 50 percent of the vote. MMP obviously makes a repeat more difficult, but as the polls are consistently showing, this is the first time since that National has a real shot at such a result.

What may be reassuring for Labour is that it was by no means a rout. The party was down on the 1949 election, but still won 46 percent of the vote, even though it was a full 20 seats behind. The swing was back in its favour during the next term, but internal divisions kept it from harnessing that momentum – a lesson this Labour Opposition should heed.

National's second term, from 1951-54 was through a period of economic prosperity and the party, frankly, did sod all, openly campaigning in 1954 on a message of "steady as she goes". Holland understood that his was not a radical era, and he rode caution to an ample victory.

John Key's National government may not have that luxury – or patience or genuinely conservative instinct. For all the right-wing complaints that this is a 'do nothing' government, its reform agenda exceeds Holland's appetite for change.

But if Key can resist the radicalism in his Cabinet and coalition partners (and perhaps in himself), the lesson of 1951 is that if you don't ask New Zealanders to change too rapidly, they won't be in too much of a hurry to change governments.

Tomorrow: What if it's more like 1963?

Comments (24)

by Andin on August 24, 2011
Andin

"the 1951 Waterfront dispute. Back then, National used the uncertain times to present as a stable, practical government, while at the same time taking for itself vast powers."

Or as I like to think of it the govt of the day exaggerated the dangers, excluded the alternate point of view from being heard (yep they could just have a quiet word in the newspaper owners ear) while lying thru their teeth, and padding their cushion.

Oh and while Im thinking of it, the 1970's when the push back came from the conservative (read old) factions in society, was the crucial decade of last century. It was then the basis was laid for the fuck up we see before us now in the western world. Its a failure of two generations parents and children and the compromise's they came to, was a sellout/up/off all round.

by Tim Watkin on August 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

Andin, from memory they went further than having a quiet word in the newspaper owners' ears. They enforced out-and-out censorship, I think. It was a remarkable bit of dictatorial democracy.

by Chris Trotter on August 24, 2011
Chris Trotter

Historically-speaking, Tim, this is pure tosh.

And "dictatorial democracy" - WTF?

Stick to what you know mate, because this, on top of your schoolboy howlers about Churchill and Napoleon in Afghanistan, just makes you look like an ill-educated buffoon.

by Tim Watkin on August 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

Chris, either debate the point or don't bother crawling out of your bubble. Preferably the latter, as I really am over your smug digs and abuse...

Dictatorial democracy - not an overly complex concept. We were a democracy with full elections, but the Holland government took extreme powers, censoring media, banning public meetings, and so on - essentially ignoring constitutional conventions.

by Iain Butler on August 24, 2011
Iain Butler

Go Tim!

by stuart munro on August 24, 2011
stuart munro

You know I often disagree with you Tim, but not this time.

The form of democracy unhappily does not guarantee a liberal representative state. In fact it depends on restraint on the part of representatives, and an earnest solitude for the twin democratic virtues - representation, and the public interest.

Well said.

by Andin on August 24, 2011
Andin

So you two have been at it for a while. Play nice

Ah those dinner party chats. Its funny the ebb and flow of seething masses of minds in a moral miasma. People nee politicians and businessmen usually have agreed to do things a certain way before a law gets passed - more so mebbe back then- was all I was trying to get at. In my 'umble way.

by Andin on August 25, 2011
Andin

Sorry Tim another point I guess I was trying to make '51 and '63 were different times NZ mainly followed the lead of either the UK or the USA. That has changed completely now IMO. to follow any lead from there would be a mistake. Can or is there enough voters who are politically astute to say its time we set our own course.

Guess we'll find out after the games, oh sorry RWC. For a moment then I thought I was... never mind.

by Tim Watkin on August 26, 2011
Tim Watkin

Andin, you're right it is a different time and we're certainly more independently minded in foreign affairs. My points were mostly domestic, but you could also say that there's some similarity between 1951 and now, in that you've got a National government taking us closer to the US. In 1951 it was away from Europe and towards the US. Now it's back into the fold, somewhat, of the US alliance after a period of relative - and I stress relative - independence.

by Brendon Mills on August 27, 2011
Brendon Mills

Hello again Tim.

I would actually have to say that Key is probably closer to Sid Holland than any other pre 1984 PM, and Holland would be closer on the political spectrum to the 1984-2011 than any of the other administrations hitherto.

Case in point: If you find youself in the local library, I suggest you go to the aviation books and find a book on the history of of the old National Airways Corporation -- I cannot remember the name of it tho... (you would be old enough to remember that would you? Even if you were still throwing your toys out of the cot...)

In it, the author describes how the 1949-1957 National government wanted to sell the infant NAC, and had detailed proposal on how to do it. Of course the proposal was permanantely put on the back-burner after the '51 dispute..

by Tim Watkin on August 29, 2011
Tim Watkin

Brendon, funny you should mention that. I was aware that NAC privatisation was a Holland policy, but wasn't aware why it was never initiated, so left it out of my post.

Interesting to see if anything could put Key off his sale plans...

And great that you agree. Key does seem to be most Holland-like. The comparison seems a better fit than Holyoake.

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