This election is all about shoes

As markets tumble, will New Zealanders demand change to make a political flight to safety?

With all the political theatre and national conversation around tax, prisons, and more tax this week, commentators and political reporters have spent the last few days declaring that these are crucial issues at a crucial time in this year's campaign. They're not wrong, but I've always thought this year's election would ultimately come down to shoes.

The national mood that has seen National enjoy a double-digit poll lead for months now can't be put down to any great sense of anger towards the current government. There are some who are vexed about the Child Discipline Act and who share a perception that this Labour government is led by power-hungry social engineers. But my sense is that they are louder than they are numerous.

The mood for change is more one of boredom, a weariness with the same old faces that, to be honest, date back not just the nine years that Labour has led the government, but back to 1984. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then a decent dose of ennui.

And that's where the shoes come in. Most of us don't buy new shoes because our last pair are completely kaput, rain seeping in through the holes in our soles. We don't head to the shops because we suddenly hate the old pairs that have served us well in the past. We buy new shoes because we feel like a bit of a change; because that new pair in the shop window look just that much flashier than the ones we're wearing now. And so it could be with this election. National has, as we know, carefully packaged itself in 'me-too' terms, mimicking many of Labour's policies (for this one election, at least). It recognises that the electorate is in no mood for wholesale change. We're not going to switch our brogues for stilettos, heck no. But National strategists are betting we want something with a but more polish.

Simon Collins, in his one man poll for the New Zealand Herald, picked up on this desire for change, but not too much change. He quoted 36-year-old mother Susan Hainsworth, a blood technician in Palmerston North, saying, "I'm not saying we need to do anything different, just a fresh approach."

No, I know it doesn't make any sense, and it doesn't reflect very well on us as engaged voters. But this is politics. In Invercargill, 24-year-old travel consultant Rob Wilson told Collins he was switching to National because Labour had "had their day... Change is as good as a holiday". Policies? Pah.

All of which is why the global financial meltdown could turn into a positive for Labour. On the face of it, the bad Prefu results announced this week and the sliding economy would seem to be a boost for the Opposition. But just as investors are turning to bonds and gold as a safe place to deposit their funds, so voters may consider a political flight to safety. That old pair of shoes may look a little more comfy, more reassuring than that new pair in the shop. The new pair might pinch a little, and it's not as if there's anything really wrong with the old pair...

John Key, so appealing since he took over the National party, suddenly looks like the wrong man for the times. As I noted the other day, it looks like we're on the cusp of a step change for capitalism, back to an era of more regulation and intervention. The free-market is going to have to be tethered. Act, especially, must feel completely out of step with the political times. Selling free-market libertarianism amidst this meltdown must feel like selling matches to victims of a forest fire.

For all National's efforts over the past three years to swing back to the centre, Key faces a similar problem. Voters may well ask whether a man who has spent his career in the financial markets, the very markets which have let us down so badly these past few years, is really the man to trust with the country right now. Does he have the right sense and sensibilities? According to the New Yorker, Merrill Lynch, where Key spent much of his working life, had more than $30 of investments on their books for every dollar of capital last year.

New Zealanders, of course, may not make the leap from "Key, he understands the markets back to front" to "Key, he learnt his economics in those greedy, messed-up bloody markets".

Michael Cullen has made a few ham-fisted attempts at highlighting the image of Trader John, and we can expect that Labour will keep trying to make that stick. But National has always promoted the image of State House John, and with Southland-steady Bill English at his side, they will keep pushing the idea that these are serious men who understand the markets and so know how to manage them. Labour could struggle to shift that perception in less than a month.

But these are volatile times. Those undecideds, and even those supposedly settled on change, could have their instincts reinforced by the financial storm around them: "We need change to save us". But some could also suddenly decide to batten down the political hatches. That old, not-half-bad pair of shoes might start to look a whole lot better.

More than prisons, more even than tax cuts, I'm picking that the voters' choice of shoe will swing this election.