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Chris Ford: A Tale of Two Tory Parties - New Zealand and UK

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

British Prime Minister David Cameron might be ringing his good buddy John Key for advice more often these days. Why? Because the British and New Zealand Tories are enjoying contrasting fortunes whilst implementing similar policies.

You only have to look at the opinion polls published in both countries to see why Cameron might be envious of his Kiwi friend and counterpart. 

In the UK, their Tories have been stuck at around the 30 percent mark in the polls for almost a year. The Labour Party and the more right-wing UK Independence Party have been gaining traction at the Tories expense. The Tories coalition partners, the formerly centrist Liberal Democrats, have plunged even further going from nearly 25 percent at the 2010 election to around 10 percent currently.

Our Tory Government in New Zealand, by contrast has fared much better. National's poll ratings have been steady, hovering around the high 40s since late 2009. Our Labour Party has really tanked in the polls and they are still only just above the 30 percent mark in the most recent polls. The one thing that commonly confronts the UK and New Zealand Tories, however, is the disappearance of their respective coalition partners. As I stated above, the Tories Lib Dem coalition partners have suffered a dramatic decline in their support (only masked by their narrowly retaining a safe seat at a by-election last week). In New Zealand, the Maori Party, United Future and Act parties that have supported National since 2008 face precarious futures going into the 2014 election.

The contrast between National's ongoing (and renewed) popularity in New Zealand and the Conservatives failures in Britain, though, can be brought down to one factor - the greater right-wing pragmatism of the Key National Government versus the arid right-wing dryness of the Cameron Conservative Government.

The right wing dryness of the UK Tories has been evident in the severe austerity policies implemented by their Chancellor (Finance Minister) George Osborne. He has slashed taxes for the rich and raised them in many cases on the poor. Spending cuts have impacted on social services accessed by the vast majority of Britons. The welfare budget is being severely cut into with many sick and disabled Britons being forced off benefits, even if they need them. The cherished National Health Service is virtually being privatised by stealth. Charter schools are likely to be introduced there en masse. Consequently, the economy continues to sputter at best and choke at worst. All the while, the UK public deficit continues to increase as unemployment remains stubbornly high and revenues subdued.

The New Zealand National-led Government, by contrast, has taken a less aggressive but no less right wing approach. Tax cuts have been delivered for the wealthiest New Zealanders. Unlike Britain, though, tax cuts have also been aimed at National's middle class support base. Welfare reform is being initiated but it is expected to be a slightly milder version of Britain's very harsh reforms. Anyway, welfare reform has been ongoing in New Zealand since 1991 while Britain only seriously started to reform welfare under Blair's Labour Government in the late 1990s. In this country, charter schools look likely to be established in small numbers at first with the network to be expanded further only if National and Act win a third term. In health, National has not tinkered with Labour's health reforms and large scale British-style contracting out of services has not been attempted so far under the current government. All this has been aided by an economy that escaped the worst of the carnage wrought by the Global Financial Crisis. This has meant that while New Zealand's growth rates have been subdued, they have been at least higher than those experienced in Britain and Europe. Furthermore, Finance Minister Bill English injected some fiscal stimulus into our economy during the first half of the GFC-induced recession. Contrast this with Britain's George Osborne who from day one in office has treated the terms 'fiscal stimulus' and 'economic growth' with disdain.

The leadership styles of David Cameron and John Key are also somewhat different.

Cameron comes across as a Tory toff, the kind of Eton-educated leader that the Tories have always chosen. Whenever I've seen him on television he comes across as cold, austere, aloof and detached from the everyday realities of struggling Britons. After all, he is the son of third-generation family of wealthy financiers.

While I'm no fan of John Key (and have never been) at least I acknowledge the gift he has in coming across as an ordinary New Zealander. Compared to Cameron, he has a better 'back story' (despite his being a millionaire) that sits well with Middle New Zealand - the son of a widowed mother who spent most of his childhood in a state (council estate) house and who was educated at a state school. While many on the left mock him for his accent, compared with Cameron, he comes across a bit more warmly than Cameron does. While some mock the way he speaks, at least it's in a 'Middle New Zild' dialect and not the 'Tory toff' one that Cameron effects. 

Both leaders, though, do have their respective foibles. Key has had problems remembering events (such as numerous mentions of Kim Dotcom). Cameron, meanwhile, has even had charges laid against him that he is not fully in charge of his government. This charge against Cameron arose when a former Downing Street aide alleged that Cameron sometimes first heard about decisions taken by his ministers through the media.

All these factors mean that Cameron's and Key's prospects for job security (at least in the medium term) are vastly different. Cameron has come under increasing fire from Tory backbenchers for supposedly taking his party too far into the centre - which is somewhat surprising as, in my view, the British Tories are more like Act in terms of their current ideological positioning. This has raised the prospect of a leadership challenge against Cameron perhaps within the next year or so. Key, on the other hand, looks safe in his job given his and the National Party's steady poll ratings. No National caucus member in their right mind would challenge a popular incumbent.

And the respective quality of our two nations main opposition parties and leaders has affected the New Zealand National Party and the UK Conservative Party's respective fortunes too.

In Britain, the Labour Party is united behind Ed Miliband. While some questions remain about Miliband's leadership capabilities, they are far fewer than the questions being asked about the abilities of his New Zealand counterpart David Shearer. This is the case as here in New Zealand, the Labour Party is threatening to go into meltdown again after what transpired to be a brief truce after the leadership question surfaced at last year's party conference. In Britain, by contrast, Cameron doesn't face a weak, divided opposition and the prospect is growing that his government could be the first one-term government for nearly 40 years.

That's why I think the phone and mobile phone lines could have been burning between 10 Downing Street and the Beehive lately. I have no doubt that Key will be passing on advice to his struggling buddy Cameron. But the one thing is this - Key has already experienced a difficult year. That's why politics could become just as bad for Key as it has been for David Cameron in a single stroke. That's what John Key needs to think about now.

After all, this Tale of Two Tory Parties could one day soon become indistinguishable.





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