The virtue of losing

Why the left might be happy to see National win this election

With the polls so close little over a week from the election, core supporters of all parties are focused intently on pushing their causes, hoping for enough votes to be central to coalition negotiations come November 9. So it's hardly the time to talk about the positives of losing, right? Despite that, I'm going to ponder out loud: For supporters of the centre-left and left, this could be a very good election to lose.

Obviously, no-one likes to lose. But voters get bored, times change and call on different skills, and the national mood shifts like a sand dune in a storm. One of the great strengths of western democracies is that they swing back and forth, ensuring fresh ideas and talents are promoted according to the wisdom and needs of the electorate. Too long with just one party in power and we risk stagnation, even, in the long run, tyranny.

I am neither saying that the current Labour-led government is stale nor tyrannical. On the contrary, Helen Clark and the party leadership have belatedly refreshed their ranks and however well they do on November 8, there will be some impressive new MPs entering the House. Further, the coalition Labour would lead into a fourth term would be significantly different from the government of the past three years. United Future will likely be absent, perhaps New Zealand First as well. The Greens and Maori Party will almost certainly be needed and so will be able to demand new policy initiatives. If mere change is what you want – harking back to my change of shoes argument – a Labour-led government could still meet your needs.

So why might this election be a good one for the left to lose? Let me start with the simple political fact that after nine years it has crafted a new political centre that means interventionist policies and redistributive principles are for now accepted by the majority. National's policy concessions from its past few election campaigns have been striking. Its promise not to abolish Working for Families or 20 hours free early childhood education, and its step back from school vouchers and bulk-funding of schools ("unlikely", John Key says), is a significant political shift in just one term. There will be no work for the dole schemes. There are even policies on National's agenda – investing more of the Cullen Fund in New Zealand, better dental care for seniors, emergency assistance for New Zealanders who lose their jobs over the next two years – that would appeal to many left-wingers, if they could bring themselves to admit it.

A National government led by John Key will, for the first term at least, undoubtedly be less extreme than the one that Don Brash would have led.

Perhaps most significant of all is National's promise not to sell any state assets in its first term. No party puts a time limit on a promise unless it is reining in its own instincts. Every voter must know that given a second term, National will be looking for silver to sell. But its promise to retain, for example, Kiwibank, KiwiRail and Air New Zealand for the next three years is a major victory for the left. If National was to break that promise, it would condemn itself to years of internal wrangling and a political backlash to match Labour's own following the crumbling of the Lange government.

In other words, the next three years are comparatively safe. National is tied to the centre. And there's something else about the next three years that left-wingers might want to consider. At least 18 months of them will be economically miserable. Any government will likely be on the defensive, forced to intervene – to 'do something" – to protect our national welfare. New Zealanders, being as we are, will still blame the government in power despite the fact what hardship we suffer will be of the world's making, not our nation's on.

While looking ahead a term is a risky game at the best of times, the indications are that the 2011 election will be a difficult one for the incumbent one to win (although the Rugby World Cup may have a disproportionate influence). The left may well consider one term worth sacrificing if it seemed likely it could come back stronger for another nine year run in just three years' time.

What's more, the global mood will be against monetarism and in favour of more regulation and intervention. The invisible hand of international politics will have a restraining influence on all western governments, ours included.

The coalition that would be forced on National after this election is also worth considering. I can't see the Maori Party forming a coalition with National, but even if it offered support on supply and confidence, it would exact a heavy price. The Maori seats will be retained, we know. But as that has been negotiated off the table before the election, the Maori Party can demand much more. The repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, perhaps, given that ACT will push for the same thing? That's a policy many on the left would sympathise with. Maori control over certain sections of certain government agencies? Again, some on the left would be happy to see that.

Even with such supply and confidence support, National however may well have to govern as a minority government, seeking support from other parties on a law-by-law basis. They could be a lame duck government; at the least it would be near impossible for them to sneak through any hard-right policies.

Even if Key is less Holyoake and more Brash than he's been letting on, even if he is a centrist fake as Nicky Hager wrote yesterday, as prime minister he could forced to the centre, hamstrung by parliament and circumstance. If he is more instinctively Holyoakean, and if David Young is correct that the champions of the right are feeling frustrated by Key's political expediency, those on the left may want to consider swallowing a few "dead rats" of their own. For them Key could be the better devil.

Such a turn of events could benefit Labour and the other parties of the left, leaving a centre-right government looking listless and ineffective through a major crisis. But more importantly it would give Labour a chance to re-generate while its main opponent was weak. Labour cannot afford to enter the 2011 election still dominated by 1980s-era politicians. It needs new faces on the front bench. A loss would create the impetus for Helen Clark and other long-servers to resign. The good news for Clark and Labour insiders is that a loss this time would be close enough for her exit to be handled with dignity. There would be no need for knives or the gnashing of teeth.

In contrast, what if National loses again? Having tried Key's centrist, Labour-lite approach, will the party's right-wingers not feel empowered once again to move the party back towards its free-market principles? Might not the 2011 election then be fought by a re-energised right-wing party not only with the free-marketers back in the driving seat, but with an economically bruised electorate even more open to a message of change and reform than it is this year?

If there were to be a price for the left to pay, it would be in private prisons, the part-privatisation of ACC, a working requirement for DPB parents with school-age children, and roads, roads and more roads. But remember, a governing coalition of National, ACT, and United Future is unlikely to have a working majority on its own. Many of those policies may wither on the vine.

True, a financial crisis such as we are weathering may give cover for urgent and extreme action. Promises now may be explained away by dire circumstance later. But any move in that direction would put a second term in serious jeopardy, which is exactly what the left wants.

No-one likes to lose, and those that lean left in New Zealand are fervently wishing that the polls keep tracking back to Labour in the next few days, and that any optimistic mood for change is replaced by a nervous need for continuity. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Long-term gain is sometimes served by short-term pain.