First, Fill Your War-Chest: With its radically innovative and politically transgressive “Future of Work” policy package, Labour should be able to pass the hat around New Zealand’s major enterprises with every hope of receiving more than polite refusals.
THE THIRD TERM in Opposition is always the most dangerous. It’s the time when sticking to one’s principles is hardest, and when the blandishments of “professionals” promising easy victories are at their most persuasive. The prospect of another three years in opposition: of feeling powerless and useless; looms ahead of Opposition MPs like a prison sentence. They’ll do anything to escape. To win.
In 2016 Labour is in its third term of opposition, and it’s easy to imagine how desperately its caucus is looking for a way out. The party is heading into its hundredth year without a charismatic leader, shorn of just about all of the policies it campaigned on in the 2011 and 2014 elections; and as close to broke as any major party should ever be. What Labour needs is reinvigoration – reinvention even. Otherwise it risks being rejected by the electorate as too old and too irrelevant to make a difference. Yesterday’s party, filled with yesterday’s politicians.
Labour’s been here before – most recently in 1998. That, too, was the middle year of a National-led government’s third term, but it’s there that the similarities end. The government of Jenny Shipley was a government of rebels and turncoats and it was deeply unpopular. It was also a government made up of politicians elected under a radically new and different electoral system – MMP.
The Bolger-led National Government’s opponents had split their votes between three parties: Labour, NZ First and the Alliance; and most of them expected a government composed of all three. Winston Peters confounded those expectations by throwing in his lot with Bolger – a decision which inflicted near-fatal damage on his party. NZ First’s generosity notwithstanding, however, by December of 1997 Shipley had rolled Bolger and split Peter’s parliamentary ranks in two.
The Shipley Government never took. Lacking democratic legitimacy it was widely regarded as a political “dead man walking” towards the 1999 electoral gallows. It’s only hope of survival was the bitter enmity between Labour and the left-wing Alliance, led by Jim Anderton. If these two parties were to contest the 1999 election as rivals, and the Left presented to the voters as hopelessly divided, then there was a chance – a very slim chance – that National could come through the middle.
Would Labour risk it? Could Helen Clark beat Anderton’s Alliance into a poor third and win power in its own right? There were those in Labour’s caucus who believed it could, but following the Alliance’s surprisingly strong showing in the Taranaki-King Country by-election of May 1998 (Labour polled 17.53 percent to the Alliance’s 15.46 percent) Helen Clark opted to accept the olive branch offered by Anderton and publically announced Labour’s readiness to form a loose coalition government with the Alliance following the 1999 general election.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In 2016, is the Labour leader, Andrew Little, also faced with Clark’s 1998 predicament? Is he, too, confronted with the prospect of a National Party Government only too willing to repeat its propaganda victory of 2014, when the Labour/Green/NZ First/Mana opposition (not-to-mention Kim Dotcom) were successfully portrayed as a ship of fools, with everyone rowing in opposite directions? And, if so, does he really have any other option except to follow Clark’s 1998 example and announce Labour’s readiness to form a coalition government with the Greens in 2017?
That is certainly the option progressive New Zealanders are hoping Labour will take. Their not unreasonable assumption being that a coalition with the Greens will anchor Labour firmly on the Centre-Left, and decisively weaken the right-wing faction of Labour’s caucus. There are, however, a number of problems with this analysis.
First and foremost is the undeniable fact of the Prime Minister’s – and his government’s – still astonishing levels of popularity. John Key is no Jenny Shipley, and his government certainly isn’t cobbled together from rebels and turncoats. Far from being a “dead man walking”, Key’s government shows every sign of robust political health and is more than ready to make a successful bid for a fourth term. It’s a level of confidence that’s likely to keep National’s election war-chest full-to-overflowing (and Labour’s empty). It also serves as a warning to the all-important news media that, as things now stand, changing sides would not be a good idea.
In this gloomy context, the recent statements from Grant Robertson make bright and sunshiny sense. With his eyes not on 1998, but 1983, Robertson is readying the Labour Party for another bid to win the backing of big business. Like Roger Douglas before him, he is inviting his party to become, once again, New Zealand’s great political facilitator. Last time it was the Free Market Revolution of 1984-93 that Labour facilitated. This time it will be what the one-percenter luminaries gathering for the World Economic Forum at Davos are calling “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
It’s an extraordinarily clever move on Robertson’s part. The NZ Herald’s “Mood of the Boardroom” revealed that, while appreciated as a canny election-winner, Key is not regarded as the political and economic innovator New Zealand so desperately needs. With his radically innovative and politically transgressive “Future of Work” policy package, Robertson should be able to pass the hat around New Zealand’s major enterprises with every hope of receiving more than polite refusals.
Nor will he be alone. The Greens’ James Shaw is perfectly placed to act as Robertson’s seconder in the nation’s boardrooms. With his assurances that the Greens, too, are committed to developing a whole new political and economic paradigm – one equal to the enormous challenges of the 21st Century – the business community’s fears about the Greens can be sufficiently allayed to make the announcement, at Labour’s hundredth annual conference, of a Red-Green Alliance something big business can welcome – rather than condemn.
Will it be enough to defeat the Third Term Blues? Possibly. But it will certainly be enough to render Labour electorally competitive in ways the New Zealand electorate has not seen for 18 – maybe even 33 – years.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 18 January 2016.