Bryce Edwards: Who’s going to vote for TOP?

Bryce Edwards: Who’s going to vote for TOP?

Gareth Morgan made the decision to kill off The Opportunities Party (TOP) last month, but now it’s being resurrected under the leadership of former deputy leader Geoff Simmons. But does it really have a chance of breaking through in 2020, and gaining five per cent of the vote?

Commentators have been overwhelmingly pessimistic about TOP’s chances. Conservative pundit Liam Hehir was first out of the blocks, writing about what the party is up against, despite the “congeniality” of the new leader – see: Opportunities Party faces significant challenges.

Hehir’s most important point is his question about who is actually going to vote TOP: “Even with a new leader and more coherence, the obstacles remain formidable. It still remains unclear what TOP’s constituency is.” Hehir can’t see enough clarity about what the party stands for: “Last time round, TOP put forward a detailed, complex and idiosyncratic policy platform. There was no real unifying theme or simple message to it all. How are busy voters supposed to respond to something like that? Even then, parties with more natural power bases than TOP have failed to find an electoral groove.”

I’ve also written on this basic problem in my column for Newsroom this week: “This issue of constituencies is vitally important because, historically, political parties have only been successful when they exist to champion a particular cleavage in society. These cleavages can be social or political – i.e. they can be demographic/sociological or ideological” – see: Why TOP will struggle.

Here’s my main point: “The lesson is that parties need some sort of politicised cleavage in order to prosper – something that makes a certain group of voters look around for an identifiable party that will solve a problem or represent its concerns. Yet what divide or cleavage does TOP represent? Certainly, none of the traditional demographic or social divides. In fact, Morgan, and now Simmons, have taken a clear opposition to such divides, especially in terms of the traditional left-right spectrum, with the stated intention of putting the party right bang in the centre, and willingness to work in coalitions with either Labour or National. This centre-party strategy is fine if TOP can position itself as representing something else as well. It simply isn’t enough to just build a party on the basis of having more “common sense”, or the ambition to hold the balance of power – as the example of United Future shows. Unfortunately for TOP, there simply isn’t a political divide in New Zealand based around ‘evidence-based policy’.”

Gareth Morgan himself has explained again this week what the party stands for, saying TOP’s differentiation from other parties is, “Evidence-informed policy developed by experts” – see Dan Satherley’s The Opportunities Party lives on, with new leader Geoff Simmons. And in terms of its policy focus, Simmons has pointed to TOP’s emphasis on “taxation, cannabis legalisation, affordable housing and environmental protection.”

These might all be good policies for voters to examine, but there is no particular constituency that these naturally appeal to in large enough numbers to create a successful party.

The most likely demographic for TOP to successfully target might be youth. As I explained in an article by Jean Bell, “One of [TOP’s] key campaigning areas is… running this line that there’s been some sort of generation theft or generational bias to the [Government’s] current policy settings” – see: TOP set to pull youth voters, says political commentator.

However, TOP seems intrinsically opposed to targeting and tailoring its policy prescriptions to any particular group interests. New leader, Geoff Simmons is especially against what he sees as divisive politics, and he wants TOP to be more of a party of unity and commonsense than difference, which can be seen in his opinion piece published today in The Spinoff – see: The demonisation of TOP 2.0 is political tribalism at its worst.

Simmons says the politics of division and nastiness “will not be how TOP works on my watch”, and “The whole point of the Treaty is that Aotearoa New Zealand is a place where people talk about their differences, rather than fight.” He concludes his article emphasising that “TOP will talk to anyone” and “we are all in this together.”

Could TOP chase the “woke vote”?

Under the leadership of Gareth Morgan, TOP was associated more with social conservatism than any kind of “political correctness” or social liberalism. Largely this was down to controversial statements on the campaign trail about “femo-fascists” and “lipstick on a pig”.

What’s more, in calling last month for expressions of interest to take over TOP, Morgan tweeted that “Identity politics fans need not apply”. He elaborated on what he meant by this, saying “Other agendas, such as promoting the identity (or sector) politics of socio-economic status, gender, environment, ethnicity, alone wouldn’t qualify” – see Jenée Tibshraeny’s Gareth Morgan happy to fund a TOP successor, but warns the leader would be ‘personally liable’ if they didn’t implement all his policies.

Morgan’s communication adviser, Sean Plunket, was also associated with a more socially conservative approach. And this week, Plunket has written his analysis of the potential and problems for TOP going forward, in which he seems concerned about the party going down the route of political correctness: “There is a real risk TOP will be captured by those who practice the politics of identity and political correctness, ground already well occupied by Labour and the Greens. TOP’s policies aren’t predicated on restoring karmic balance to the universe, just some sensible changes that deliver more equity for society as a whole, particularly for younger New Zealanders” – see his Facebook posting: The Challenge for TOP.

Nonetheless, focusing on winning over a more socially liberal base might be naturally attractive to the fledgling party. As I write in my Newsroom column, “Simmons is clearly more liberal than Morgan. And the milieu that he inhabits is more likely to push TOP towards the ‘woke’ side of the culture war. Although the ‘woke vote’ is probably already sewn up by Labour and the Greens.”

There are a number of high-profile people who might be more attracted to such a party, especially with Gareth Morgan leaving the leadership. For example, columnist
Lizzie Marvelly wrote last month how much she lamented what had happened to TOP, and said the party had a lot of appeal otherwise – see: Gareth Morgan’s political party was a missed opportunity.

Blue-green Green killers

Most commentators have identified the “environmental vote” as the most likely one for TOP to successfully chase. And this week Geoff Simmons has even characterised his party as a “blue-green” one. So, as Liam Hehir says, the Greens are the potential losers from the resurrection of TOP: “If TOP threatens anyone now then, again, in theory, it will be the Greens. The parties already had quite a bit of overlap. Led by Simmons, it should zero in on the same set of upscale liberal target audience. In the last public poll, the Green Party had the support of about 6 per cent of voters. If TOP does well then it just might just snaffle enough of those voters to reduce the Greens below 5 per cent. That would really threaten the coalition Government.”

And Toby Manhire reports that at the last election there “was a good bit of disquiet, if not alarm, from with the Greens during the campaign of the potential for a well-oiled, focused, evidence-led and environment-conscious party to poach from the Greens’ urban voting base” – see: TOP is not dead after all, and Simon Bridges is pretty damn happy about that. But in the end, Manhire says that “Between them, Sean Plunket and Gareth Morgan did a sterling job of sending liberal urban floating Greens fleeing back to the mothership.”

In 2020, it might be different, with the Greens at risk of dropping below five per cent: “the possibility of the Greens going underwater is salivating: it would bump the Nats’ parliamentary allotment close to a majority. There’s a long way to go, but a plausible TOP is a boon to that cause. It may be the only way a mateless National can win.”

Rightwing political commentator Brigitte Morten also thinks the Greens should be worried: “The people who may be most concerned by TOP’s resurgence are the Greens. In their announcement, TOP highlighted two policy areas which may attract Green voters – cannabis legislation and environmental protection. These could be particularly attractive to those voters who feel isolated from the more socialist rhetoric of the Greens’ left led by Marama Davidson” – see: TOP’s resurgence: What are its prospects?

Finally, although there has previously been an exodus of some of the more liberal activists in TOP, it will be interesting to see if they start returning now that Gareth Morgan has given away the leadership. One to watch will be Jenny Condie who famously fought against Morgan in 2017, leading him to label her a “pain in the arse”. And recently she told her side of the story – see: TOP could’ve been so much more than Gareth being Gareth.