Been There - Done That: The launch of the NewLabour Party in 1989 was derailed by the antics of the Far-Left. Twenty-two years later, and those contemplating the formation of yet another "New Left Party" (like Sue Bradford and Matt McCarten who were there, as I was, at the birth of the NLP) will find themselves with very little, apart from the Far-Left, to work with. The New Zealand electorate is unlikely to respond kindly.
A NEW LEFT PARTY – hardly are those words out when a dispiriting image out of the late-1980s troubles my sight: somewhere (I seem to recall it was the Overseas Terminal in Wellington) a queue of youthful extremists, their gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, are shuffling their sneakers inexorably towards the microphone, while all around them reel indignant social-democrats – recalling, too late, W. B Yeats warning about the worst being full of passionate intensity.
The Inaugural Conference of the NewLabour Party on Queen’s Birthday weekend, 1989, should have been a triumph. Deploying all of the organisational flair for which he was famous, Jim Anderton had gathered together around five hundred eager refugees from the pod-party Labour had become under Rogernomics. An overwhelming majority of those attending the conference were ordinary Kiwis: workers, students, beneficiaries and pensioners – with a smattering of academics and trade unionists.
I wasn’t worried about them. When they spoke I was confident they would put into words the feelings of outrage and betrayal shared by hundreds-of-thousands of their fellow citizens.
No, the people I worried about (and I was not alone) were the fifty-to-sixty Trotskyites, Maoists, "Permanent Revolutionaries", Treaty fanatics, hard-core feminists and uncompromising environmentalists who would climb aboard this new political vehicle like Baader-Meinhof terrorists boarding a jet-liner.
We tried to warn Jim, but he simply couldn’t see the problem. "Don’t worry," he said, "we’ll outnumber them ten-to-one." What Jim didn’t seem to grasp was how much damage fifty-to-sixty fanatics could do to the public’s perception of his nascent political movement.
And, oh, what a lot of damage they did. In the days following Jim’s announcement of the NLP’s birth, on 1 May 1989, opinion polls showed support levels around ten percent. In the weeks following the hi-jacked Inaugural Conference public support plummeted below three percent.
"Ah, but that was more than twenty years ago," I hear you say, "times have changed".
Indeed they have.
In 2011, New Zealand is governed by a right-wing coalition supported by close to 60 percent of the electorate. The dominant partner in that coalition, the John Key-led National Party, has been supported by more than 50 percent of the voters for two straight years.
Does this sound like the right time to launch a New Left Party to you?
Who would join it?
Not the moderate, social-democratic Left: they have all returned to the Labour Party. Not the moderate, environmentalist Left: they have the Green Party.
This is important – and not only because, between them, Labour and the Greens account for practically all of the Centre-Left vote. They also account for 99 percent of those who have the slightest idea about how to run an effective election campaign.
A crucial element in the success of Jim Anderton (ex-Labour) and Winston Peters (ex-National) was the large number of experienced election campaigners who rallied to their side. These people didn’t have to be taught how to fund-raise, organise a canvassing drive, or run an election-day system – they already knew.
"No worries," say the promoters of a New Left Party, "we’ll just game the MMP system by recruiting Hone Harawira. That way we can avoid the necessity of winning 5 percent of the Party Vote. If it’s good enough for Rodney Hide in Epsom – it’s good enough for us."
Hmmmm? Not sure that’s the slogan you’re looking for, Comrades. Besides, if you really think an electorally poisonous bunch of eco-anarchists, Maori nationalists, unreconstructed ‘80s feminists and hard-core Marxist-Leninists are going to attract anything like Act’s vote in 2008 – then you’re away with the fairies.
Just consider the stats: The combined 2008 vote of New Zealand’s Centre-Left parties (Labour Party, Greens, Progressives) was 975,734 or 41.62 percent of the Party Vote. Altogether, the Far-Left parties (Alliance, Workers Party, RAM – Residents Action Movement) attracted just 3,306 votes or 0.14 percent.
It’s nowhere near enough, Comrades. Even if he won every vote in Te Tai Tokerau, Hone would still be on his own.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 February 2011.