Or are we heading for another 1963?

Looking back over New Zealand elections past, 1963 is another with a familiar look about it

Past elections, with their moods, trends, characters and issues can offer a window on what's happening now. A oft-repeated line at the moment is that this election is looking an awful lot like 2002.

But what about further back?

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the similarities between this year and 1951, and today wanted to look at another election with some familiar characteristics  – 1963.

As with 2011 and 1951, it saw National heading into a second term with a popular leader and a strong tail wind, politically speaking. Walter Nash had won power in 1957, aged 75, but didn't last long. Sid Holland's National had kept hidden some nasty economic surprises and the new Labour government was faced with a terrible balance of payments problem.

Nash, alongside Finance Minister Arnold Normeyer, wrote the now infamous Black Budget, increasing taxes on alcohol, tobacco and petrol. It allowed the party to carry out some other tax reforms and stick to some election promises, but voters didn't see much virute in that. In 1960, Kiwi Keith Holyoake let the anti-Labour mood do his work for him, promising little and keeping expectations low. Labour lost the election, rather than National winning it, and Holyoake began his run as National's longest-serving Prime Minister.

If Key's compared to anyone, it's often Holyoake – a likeable leader who united his party and held a commanding grip on the public imagination, although no-one could quite put their finger on what fanned the spark of affection. Holyoake was picked out as a potential leader as soon as he arrived in parliament (aged 27), but had to be patient as the Holland years rolled on.

As if often noted of Key, Holyoake was part-populist, part-pragmatist. His Te Ara biography puts it well:

"Holyoake was not one to formulate and craft his ideological credentials. His was a pragmatic approach, moving along more or less in tune with public opinion."

As Political Scientist Robert Chapman said, his "greatest feat was the slowing down of every process which, if speedily dealt with, might have represented change". I can hear the same murmurings on the right today about Key.

In the 1963 campaign, National accentuated its popular leader, talked about it as a "no change election" and benefited from the public's lingering distaste for the previous Labour government.

Labour's leader by then was Arnold Nordmeyer, he of the Black Budget. As with Phil Goff, Nordmeyer was a respected and meticulous minister whose politics had shifted around during his long life as a parliamentarian. When he won the leadership, his baggage was simpy too heavy for the party to carry, despite its efforts to repackage him.

The earnest Labour leader was no match for Holyoake's likeability and the public confidence that he was a safe pair of hands.

In 1963, National's 12 seat margin slipped to 10, but it still won without much sweat. While today's National would be terribly disappointed if it mirrored 1963 and saw its support fall from 2008, Labour should be even more horrified by the prospect of history repeating itself. The 1963 election was the start of just the second term of National's 12 year run in office.

So there are some interesting comparisons between this year and 1963. But of the two years – 1951 and 1963 – the latter feels like the harder squeeze. Holyoake was riding a wave of prosperity, there was no sense of crisis around him, and to be honest, his winning margins were never colossal.

National through the 1960s wore a face more New Zealanders were comfortable with and read the mood well, but it was slowly losing support throughout.

In many ways, Key seems to be at least as much a Holland as a Holyoake, and Goff more a Nash than a Nordmeyer. The immediate past elections and the issues of the day seem more in line with 1951.

Of course historical comparisons are far from perfect, not least because we're now working under a different electoral system. And 2011 will be its own unique year. But it's useful, I think, to look at how our politics has ebbed and flowed in the past and take what we can for today.

As with 1951, it seems one lesson for National is to see how New Zealand voters rewarded caution. When we vote National, it's more often than not a sign we want that 'steady as she goes' approach.

But for Labour, it's something else.

Perhaps the most useful lesson Labour could take from 1963 – if it can't rally in the next few months and write a new chapter – is the need to quickly identify and rally round a successor, and a figure of change. What typically comes after a period of consolidation, is a leader who is more of a change agent.

Nordmeyer was eventually replaced – belatedly, you could argue – by one Norman Kirk. To the party's detriment, MPs kept squabbling and wasted an election by failing to unite around 'Big Norm'.

When they did, he caught the mood of a new generation, even if his premature death meant it wasn't for long.

Who knows, maybe there's a new factor just around the corner, waiting to change the shape of this election. But when National unites around a popular leader and plays a conservative hand, it's a hard party to shift.