Seymour looks like he could distance his party from the past — but it’ll take time

When a political party suffers humiliation on the truly horrendous scale that Act experienced on election night in September you might expect frustration, even recrimination, to surface at the party's annual conference.

That is unlikely to happen at today's gathering of what is left of the Act faithful, however.

And for several reasons, not least because of last night's pre-conference dinner marking Act's 20th anniversary.

No one likes to rain on their own parade. Camaraderie breeds solidarity. Whatever the arguments about tactics and strategy - past and present - no doubt by the end of the evening a lot of broken fences had been mended and the assembled were ready and willing to take on anyone not intoxicated by the Gospel of Saint Roger.

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Another reason the conference should be relatively well behaved is the venue - a barn on Alan Gibbs' farm just off the Kaipara Coastal Highway.

The backdrop of the multi-millionaire's collection of weird and wonderful sculptures dotting the heavily manicured, lusciously grassed hills on the property is one that induces contemplation - not confrontation.

Were the conference being held in some stuffy, windowless basement room in some tatty inner-city motel - and Act has "been there, done that" in the not too distant past - then things might turn out rather differently.

The sensibly swift resignation of then leader Jamie Whyte following the election catastrophe brought a degree of closure to the party's angst, even though he could hardly be blamed for the rout.

The upshot, though, is that the conference will be far more interested in how David Seymour, Whyte's successor, intends digging Act out of its deep hole rather than indulging in a bitchy post-mortem. In a clever move, the party hierarchy has installed a safety valve by inviting National's private pollster, David Farrar, to provide such analysis.

Seymour, who categorises himself as a classic liberal, will not provide the headlines that Whyte's more radical, more edgy, and ultimately more risky, libertarianism managed to do.

But Seymour is recognised in the party as the better politician. Act has had no shortage of leaders - Rodney Hide, Don Brash, John Banks and Whyte - who could light up the sky but who failed to translate that into votes.

It may well be time for a more gradualist, less flamboyant approach which replicates the Greens' methodology of putting substance ahead of style and not resorting to cheap hits and character assassination.

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Underpinned by a passionate and solid adherence to Act's founding principles, Seymour more than fits that bill.

His conference speech must persuade delegates that there is still a market for Act's policies and ideas - and that it has not dried up as a result of the sustained lift in economic growth under National. If there is no such market then everybody may as well pack up their bags and go home.

Seymour is confident there is a catchment of 200,000 or so voters who are pretty satisfied with National but who believe things could be even better. As National's star inevitably wanes, some of these voters should drift Act's way.

Don't ask which issues Seymour intends raising to capture this drift.

He doesn't know. But at this very early stage of the three-year electoral cycle, it matters little.

The worry for Act is that last year's dreadful result may not be entirely attributable to Act's internal ructions in the Hide and Brash eras - and that partly it might have been the natural outcome of a shrinking market.

For the record, Act secured less than 17,000 party votes. In minor party comparison, Colin Craig's Conservatives won just under 96,000 votes.

Act's vote was barely a 10th of what the party was getting in its halcyon days more than a decade ago.

The South Island is now a foreign country as far as Act is concerned. The party picked up a grand total of just 2465 party votes across the whole island.

Its support also crumbled in the provinces in the North Island. Act has traditionally done better in the Auckland metropolis. Yet it only passed the thousand mark in two electorates - Epsom and Pakuranga.

The figures help to explain why there will be no great desire for a stoush over what went so wrong last year.

What would be the point? It would be the equivalent of bald men fighting over a comb. Those unhappy that the party got such a comprehensive thrashing have probably since voted with their feet, anyway.

Those who remain are being reminded by Seymour that Act faces a long journey on the road to recovery before it reaches its destination. And even that is a relatively modest one.

He wants to get Act to the position where it is consistently polling at between 6 per cent to 8 per cent. He is warning the party that it could take up to nine years to achieve that kind of equilibrium.

This is a far cry from the times when Sir Roger Douglas and other party luminaries talked confidently of Act securing 15 pert cent of the vote or more.

Still, Seymour's initial target is to pull around 100,000 votes at the 2017 election. And that looks ambitious in the light of last year's result. Even so, it would still leave Act stranded below the 5 per cent threshold and still reliant on National's continuing its generosity in Epsom.

In part to generate a sense of momentum, Seymour has instituted a wide-ranging review to both modernise and streamline the party's structure and organisation, in particular upgrading its voter identification systems and sharpening the party's marketing of its messages.

But there won't be any change in the party's name. There appears to have been a robust debate on the matter.

While many would argue that Act's brand has become irredeemably toxic, Seymour says that is outweighed by the very high name recognition Act enjoys in the wider electorate.

That advantage would be lost if the party started calling itself the Liberals, for example.

Seymour argues that from here on, the public's view of Act will increasingly be driven by the way he conducts himself, rather than voters' memories.

He's not offering excitement. He's offering substance. It may just work - but only very gradually.