Opinion

This book about National shows how bad things can get… Labour should read it

Opinion: From the very first page of Blue Blood, Andrea Vance had me. I scoffed it all up over the weekend unable to put it down.

It is a rollicking tale, riddled with drama, leaks, lies and political lunacy. It’s stranger than fiction and yet entirely factual. 

Former National Party Prime Minister, Bill English Former National Party Prime Minister, Bill English
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

As a former member of the press gallery, I’d already lived most of the moments covered in the book. I covered the parts of its sum in individual daily stories over years. 

What Vance’s book did for me was colour between some of the lines where I’d scrawled recklessly with crayons outside and all over them. 

Her attention to detail brings a delicacy to the brute political saga and takes you into the story, it’s novelistic. From the Takaka marbled walls where Winston Peters conducted coalition negotiations to the back-to-back game shows being watched by staffers waiting, impotent, until the negotiations concluded. 

Jami-Lee Ross’s love of House of Cards - the original of course. The fact Trevor Mallard thought so little of Ross as a new MP he simply referred to him as ‘the one with the three first names’.

As the name and blurb suggest, Vance’s book is squarely focused on National’s crisis in opposition but it offers a cautionary tale to any and all political parties - particularly the majors and how quickly things can change, how quickly they can entrench and spiral. 

A similar book could be written about Labour’s time in opposition before the John Key years, where Vance’s book picks up, and which Lloyd Burr’s The Wilderness podcast can attest to - chronicling Labour’s crisis. 

But current Labour government MPs and Ministers should also cast forward to how the book and the prescriptive nature of political dysfunction can perpetuate as a blueprint for what not to do now. 

It starts with a strong leader whose popularity is inextricably linked to the popularity of the party, perhaps that leader resigns, perhaps their popularity wanes but it leaves such a chasm, such a vacuum in which chaos and ego thrive. 

For National, the leaking started in 2018. Bill English lost the election. In Blue Blood, Vance writes of how he warned the caucus early, ‘if you want to stay in opposition start leaking’. 

When he quit, English reiterated his warnings, Tearing down the stability built over a decade was a ‘recipe for staying in opposition’, he said. 

He used to tell caucus that every time we talk about ourselves it’s another percentage off the polls.

So you can’t argue National weren’t forewarned, that they were stupid or ignorant of the damage being done. 

And yet they did it anyway. For all sorts of reasons - desperation, ego, arrogance, power, fear, it went on for four years. Four years, five leaders - English, Bridges, Muller, Kaye, Collins. Now National has Christopher Luxon. 

The leaking appears to have stopped. For now. 

Conversely, recently, I received my first call ever from a Labour MP expressing negative views about Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

Sure, I’ve had Labour on Labour leaks before - but always directed at other MPs or ministers. Never at Ardern. 

As I’ve spoken about last week, a perfect storm is brewing for Labour - in part addressed by its cost of living package yesterday - but Blue Blood is a timely reminder of how quickly things can change in politics. 

In the last election, it genuinely felt like Labour and Ardern could do no wrong by the electorate. That National could even collapse as an institution. 

It’s a slippery slope and what may start as a gentle slide can very swiftly become a spiralling nosedive. 

Listen to Tova O'Brien's editorial above.

You can also download the full interview on the Tova podcast, and listen on the go. Check it out on the rova app or wherever you get your podcasts.