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Tory troubles

October 30th, 2003

Almost unnoticed by the Australian media, the British Conservative Party and the NZ National Party both dumped their leaders in the last couple of days. in one sense, the moves are in opposite directions. Iain Duncan Smith, the British Tory leader was the favourite of the Thatcherite branch membership who have, for the moment at least, a substantial say in choosing the party leader, similar to the Greens and Democrats in Australia. By contrast, the NZ Nationals dumped a moderate, Bill English, in favour of someone identified very closely with the radical free-market reforms of the 1990s, former NZRB governor Don Brash.

I’ve met Brash a couple of times and he strikes me as a decent and honest person. But he was a failure as a central banker, both because of the inflation-only policy target adopted under the National government and because of technical failures like the disastrous flirtation with a Monetary Conditions Index. Finally, although I can’t instantly produce a convincing supporting analysis, I am uneasy at the prospect of senior public servants resigning and going into politics.

What the Tories and NZ Nationals do have in common is that they are in deep electoral trouble. With two election losses behind them, neither party has managed to dissipate the popular hostility generated by periods in office that combined radical free-market policies with an authoritarian style (the Tories are still trying, without much success, to shake the tag of “the nasty party”.)

This is part of a more widespread problem for the conservative parties of the English-speaking world. The most common electoral situation is that in both Britain and NZ with a dominant Labour government, a discredited official opposition and the anti-government vote divided among several mutually hostile parties.

Through gritted teeth, I have to concede that this piece by Mark Steyn, comparing Britain to Canada, is spot on (thanks to Jack Strocchi for alerting me to this). The situation of the Liberal and National parties in the Australian states is similarly dire, although there is no plausible third-party alternative for conservative voters now that One Nation is gone.

The big apparent exceptions to all this are Bush and Howard. As regards Bush it’s worth remembering that he ran as a ‘compassionate conservative’ and still got a minority of the vote. More importantly, the political dynamic in the US is quite different from that in the other English-speaking countries. Cultural issues are far more dominant, and economic debate is incredibly unsophisticated (hence Paul Krugman’s notorious “shrillness”).

Compared to other conservative leaders, Howard has some big advantages. Vertical fiscal imbalance tilts Federal politics in favour of lower taxes (since much of the spending higher taxes could finance would be done by the states). Unlike in other jurisdictions, he still has the advantage on “law-and-order”, as applied particularly to asylum-seekers. The economy is going reasonably well and booming house prices are making the majority of voters richer. And of course, there’s the Opposition. With all of those advantages, though, the Coalition is rating 39 per cent of the first-preference vote in the last Newspoll. It would not take a big drop (caused, most probably, by the bursting of the housing bubble) to put the conservative parties in Australian national politics into the same dire position as likeminded parties elsewhere.

A couple of questions arise here. First, is this just a coincidence comparable with the string of left-wing victories in Europe in the mid-90s and defeats over the period since 2000? Second, what are the chances that all or any of the English-speaking conservative parties will disappear for good?

My short answers are
(1) No
(2) Still less than even money in each case, but not long odds

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