2002 repeat? Nah, it's 1951 all over again

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?