Do National know they lost?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but do National know they lost the election?

The tone of National’s messaging hasn’t really shifted since the formation of the new government, nor from the days John Key was their leader. It’s still snarky, soundbitey attacks on Labour’s credibility which are designed to stick in the mind just long enough to create a sense of disquiet.

But it simply doesn’t work when you’re at the very beginning of a government’s term, and even less so when you were holding the levers of power just over one month ago.

I remarked on Twitter, “If only Steven Joyce had very very recently been in a position to seek official advice on such matters.” Because that’s the kind of line you trot out when you’ve been in Opposition for a couple of years; when the government of the day has presumably had time to staff up, plan their work programme, and start getting full detailed policy advice from their departments.

The balance of power does not flip overnight. Ordinary people are quite willing to understand when it’s your first day on the job, things are going to take a while to get up to speed – which is a significant reason that the new government’s swift and decisive announcements about te reo in primary schools, the three-strikes law, foreign land ownership, and equal pay have been so delightful. We’ve all become comfortable talking about “the first 100 days” but to be honest, no one expects the first week or two to be that interesting. And yet they have been. No wonder the Tories are scared.

This next tweet strikes a very different but equally odd tone – and given the fixation with fritters and fishing I start to wonder if someone on Bill’s social media team wants to chuck it all in and get out on the water:

Obviously “great gains” is up for debate and exactly which “NZers” have made them likewise, but have a look at the overall vague, managerial tone of the thing. This is the press release you put out when you’re still Prime Minister and you’re calling back to the “success” of your much more likeable predecessor to distract from the fact you’re one more junior MP’s police investigation away from implosion.

But this has been National’s double-sided problem since Key stepped down: they’ve tried to keep politicking as though he didn’t, and they tried to do it with Mr Managerial Boringness as leader. They’ve continued to market themselves in the same snarky laidback guy-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with tone, to horrible spaghetti-related effect, and they never figured out how to make English’s boring-but-safe managerialism into a campaign asset.

He’s great as a Minister of Finance who pushes through damaging rightwing policies as though they’re plain old common-sense fiscal management. He’s terrible as a fighting champion. He was meant to be above petty politics and throwaway insults about snapper quotas, but that’s all they’ve given him.

The bigger problem for National is this: ordinarily you’d say they’ve got three years to work this out, while the new government is busy finding the caucus rooms and pathfinding to their offices in the Escherian nightmare that is the Beehive.

But this is an activist government which is already rolling out strong policies and re-writing the story on employment relations, justice, education, and health, the very purpose of government and its relationship to people. And National is offering no serious critique, no alternative narrative, no vision (admittedly it would have been miraculous for them to find one between election day and now.) Add to that: voters like to back winners. Add to that: National has tapped all its possible reserves of support, sucking every other rightwing party dry. It has nowhere to go but down.

Maybe they’re worried about leaving any space for the new government to fill and mark out its agenda. But they’re only doing more damage to themselves by continuing to mis-market their leader, or acting like there’s going to be an election in a month and all that matters is getting points on the board.

They just end up creating exactly that space for Labour, the Greens and NZ First to demonstrate that there’s a much better way to run a country. Works for me.

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