[Opinion] NZ’s John Major? Why The Left Should Be Wary of Bill English

John Key’s resignation would have been bittersweet for the left. While the National Party’s most popular leader going has made a return to government next year seem more likely, though I’m sure Andrew Little would have liked to have seen Key off in an election rather than through this resignation and I suspect the feelings would have been shared with Neil Kinnock when a backbench rebellion saw the deposition of Margaret Thatcher. But while there is some optimism around the leadership change, the left cannot afford to throw caution to the wind.

Some who celebrate Bill’s leadership have a memory of the 2002 election, which saw National’s worst result in history, feeling he could plunge their poll ratings from their seemingly untouchable 47%. But I’d caution this view and would echo the words of Daily Blog columnist Curwen Rolinson. The country and the political climate has changed massively since 2002, the anger and outrage over the Ruthanasia era has seemed to disappear from sight. Some could argue possible division from the party right, but these are early days for the new leadership, and no calls can really be made. He may have led the party to defeat, but the belief there’ll be an instant swing back to the disaster levels for National is simply wishful thinking.

But, being a student of history, I also see another reason that Labour and the Greens should be reserved, one echoing from the United Kingdom. I already made an allusion to Margaret Thatcher, but want to turn the attention towards her successor John Major. Several comparisons between Major and English can be made already. Major served as a Secretary to the Treasury and as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, also around the time they had been able to run a couple surpluses, meaning he had some good experience and financial credibility. Although, English also shares a slight weakness with Major, a perception of being quite boring, a slight irony given Major’s circus background through his family. Even the famous satirical TV show Spitting Image painted Major as this grey, boring and largely uninspiring figure.

Despite this image, Major actually managed to surprise pundits, believing that a victory for Labour was almost inevitable after more than a decade of Thatcherism. However, on the election night of 1992, the Conservatives held on to power, although the massive Thatcher majority of 102 fell to just 21 seats. I could see this happen next year too. While Labour could potentially win enough votes to cripple the current arrangement next year, Bill English may win enough votes that could see a deal done with New Zealand First and keep National in government until 2020. It’s happened before and it could very well happen again.

That classic quote of learning from history is incredibly relevant now. Neither side should disregard caution, but especially the left. They have the best opportunity to seize back government, and they should focus as much time and energy as they would if it were still John Key at the helm. Leave no room for complacency, or face a decade dominated by National.

Liam Bateman, Capital HardTalk.

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