Friday 1 June 2018

Who's Left In The Country?

In The Most Unlikely Of Places: The store of left-wing votes in the countryside, revealed in the Taranaki-King Country by-election of 1998, was forgotten about almost as soon as it was discovered. Which was a great pity. Because left-wing Kiwis living in rural and provincial New Zealand have facts to share about life in the countryside: facts their urban comrades urgently need to hear.

IT’S ONE of those facts that stick in the back of your mind. Information that forces you to consider carefully the difference between important and significant. That the event which gave rise to the fact happened 20 years ago doesn’t matter one bit. Some happenings continue to resonate long after their occurrence. That’s why the left-wing Alliance winning polling-booths in the Taranaki-King Country towns of Eltham, Stratford and Te Kuiti will always be a fact that counts.

Those small victories remain significant because they show that even in the most conservative of blue-ribbon electorates there are pockets of left-wing support. Hundreds and, quite possibly, thousands of voters with a radically different take on rural life from the occupational groups that dominate the countryside: farmers, contractors, stock-and-station agents, bankers, accountants and agricultural supply companies. Voters who, given the right incentives, could become politically important.

Back in the days of First-Past-The Post, no one paid much attention to these voters. Since there were never enough of them to affect the outcome in National’s blue-ribbon seats, their votes simply weren’t worth the effort of soliciting. Whether they made it to the polling-booths was essentially up to them. For the Labour Party such seats represented little more than useful training-grounds for ambitious young activists like Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern (both of whom were blooded in the National Party’s Waikato heartland).

Everything should have changed with the advent of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP). The new electoral system, which got its first run in 1996, transformed the country into what was, essentially, a single electorate. Under MMP, every vote cast for a political party counted. It no longer mattered that practically all of your neighbours voted for the Nats because there were plenty of other communities where Labour voters hugely outnumbered supporters of the National Party. Winning under MMP was all about getting every last one of your party’s supporters to a polling-booth so that their all-important Party Votes could be added to the nationwide tally.

The 1998 Taranaki-King Country by-election, necessitated by Jim Bolger’s appointment as New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, was a politically crucial test for all the political parties represented in Parliament. As such, voter mobilisation was critical. The Alliance, in particular, was determined to show Labour how far away it still was from recovering its former easy dominance of the left-wing vote.

In the process, the Alliance persuaded upwards of 3,000 voters to get themselves to the polling-booths on its behalf. Who were they? No one really knows. The hewers of wood and the drawers of water of rural and provincial New Zealand probably: the people you never see on Country Calendar; the ones the cockies and their mates look down their noses at; the men and women who keep the roads passable and serve behind the counter in the local store. Who knew there were so many!

I thought about these voters earlier this week as I watched Jacinda Ardern deliver the Labour-NZF-Green Government’s verdict on Mycoplasma Bovis. To see a Labour Prime Minister and the head of Federated Farmers seated side-by-side, united in a common cause, was presumably as jarring for rural and provincial voters as it was for an old socialist like me. It set me to wondering how Labour’s numbers in the Newshub and One News opinion polls might be improved if the party trained-up some organisers and put them to work in all the little country towns studded across this country’s beleaguered dairy heartlands. After all, Jacinda herself was raised in Morrinsville, not Mt Albert. Come to think of it, isn’t Helen Clark a Waikato farmer’s daughter?

There’s a widely held view among farmers (especially dairy-farmers) that Labour and the Greens have it in for them. That the Left doesn’t understand what it means to work on the land – just one biosecurity failure away from disaster. Well, there’s some truth to that. And, in many respects, the responsibility for this growing urban-rural split lies with the Left.

The store of left-wing votes in the countryside revealed by the Taranaki-King Country by-election was forgotten about almost as soon as it was discovered. Which was a great pity. Because left-wing Kiwis living in rural and provincial New Zealand have facts to share about life in the countryside: facts their urban comrades urgently need to hear.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 June 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

All I can say is, it's just as well we vote anonymously. Because the pressure put on people not to join unions, not to have anything publicly to do with the left is pretty damn fierce. And I know this simply from a brief dalliance with the countryside working on a farm for a while.
And as far as not understanding farmers goes – bugger 'em. I wouldn't necessarily want them having any influence on a political party that I vote for. They're some of the biggest hypocrites in the country – voting for extreme right-wing parties yet expecting handouts when things go wrong. Whatever happened to good old capitalist insurance?
I have to laugh when I hear them going on about how they don't get subsidies and so on, because first of all it's not true, and secondly they sound as if they pushed for it years ago, when in actual fact Labour had to drag them into it kicking and screaming the whole time. Funny, I always thought only Labour could have done that.:)

peteswriteplace said...

May be needed again some time. Had a wonderful discussion back in 1966 with a Cambridge 'blue' farmer; long before I became political. I was 22 yrs old then working in a timber mill in mid winter in Cambridge. They told me I won by a landslide. Biased and thick as two planks those Tories back then.

Anonymous said...

I would think that in the years to come, and the way property prices have risen in the cities, there will be many more left wing voters moving to the rural towns, for value for their money.
This is already happening.
While this may never change an electorate away from being a true blue seat, it will certainly change the mix.

Kat said...

Labour could make life heaven for the rural sector and farmers would still be saying "they are only doing it to get our votes". There is more chance of Protestants turning into Catholics than the bulk of blue voting farmers in NZ supporting the Labour party. Miracles have been known to happen though.

Tim said...

Well, the biggest drop for National in the 2017 election was probably in Wellington, but after that in the South Island as a whole. In 2014, National gained 50.05% of the party vote in the South Island (not including Te Tai Tonga). In 2017, National gained 47.00%. Meanwhile, the vote for Labour/Green/NZ First combined rose from 43.4% to 49.0%. At every single voting booth in Oamaru, the Labour Party received more votes than the National Party. And in the freezing work settlement of Pareora, the Labour Party received more than double the vote of the National Party.
The National Party gained vote share in Auckland.

When dividing the electorates into city, secondary urban, rural and Maori, the rural vote for National held up ok (2014:54.8%; 2017:53.0%). The vote of the Conservative Party collapsed from 5.0% to 0.25% (the Conservative Party passed the 5% threshold in the combined rural electorates in 2014). The Labour vote increased markedly from 18.5% to 29.3%. NZ First stayed nearly the same, but Greens also lost nearly 4 percentage points.

The biggest swing towards Labour was in the Maori seats, followed by secondary urban and then similar swings in rural and city electorates.

sumsuch said...

'Who's Left in the Country'-- well, from my experience, very, very few liberals. None of that thriving Welfare State species. Overtaken by born-again Christianity, self-improvement individualism and financial self protection. 'Selling' has eaten up understanding.

In answer to your question, Maori are Left in the country. Pakeha not in immediate need, mindful of their past or interested in ideas are subject to every vagary of prejudice put across the media, … or otherwise.

My Gisborne is a social pyramid not ever much affected by the old social-democracy , peak down, planters, professionals ( and other specialists) and peons in a wide base. And quite many holding on by their nails who vote for their nails rather than their toes.

Ardern talks about Murupara as the physical location of her heart. After 4 hours on a very rough road from L.Waikaremoana over Christmas I had to stop there for a mental breather. Only place, living in a welfare suburb, I've ever been sorry I stopped at. The level of desperation reached out, in imaginative leap, into the further corners of my wallet. Spirits only raised by the blooming yellow broom beneath the pine plantations out of town. You've dissected the Clarkist cowardice of this government but if she was true to her published principle Ardern would hold her 'State of the Nation' speech in this horror town.

In the country all but the top 20 % struggle, straggle.

The great wing of the Left that hasn't been lifted in 70 years is selling -- proselytising, 'evangelising' ( yes, it was all based on 19th C. English christianising -- my Socialist G.Grandfather, 'the first to bring the Word to Preston') reason and demo-cracy. Clarkism is dealing with 'reality' without trying to sell anything better.

Anonymous said...

In general, it must be a good thing for a political party to know and understand the voters, wherever they may be and whatever their political inclinations. I would say that the left generally finds it easier to denigrate its opponents (witness comments above about farmers) than understand them. Chris is right. If the left is to make progress it needs to understand life in rural and provincial New Zealand as well as in the major urban centres, moral conservatism as well as liberalism, the free enterprise ethic as well as corporatism and state control. Even, or rather particularly, those who want to effect a revolution must be able to see our people from their many different positions if they are to have hope of enduring success.

Anonymous said...

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"All I can say is, it's just as well we vote anonymously."

To see that statement challenged refer to

Geoff Fischer

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Dear anonymous 08:55 – it's always easier to denigrate than to understand. I remember farmers lining the streets when workers were marching through them on strike, yelling insults and threats the whole way. I think I probably understand them enough thanks.

Anonymous said...

We remember the role of farmers in the 1913 strike (Massey's cossacks) and the 1951 waterfront lockout but should not forget that farmers also supplied food to strikers families in the '51 dispute, in defiance of the laws enacted by a "democratic" parliament. I know farmers in my rohe, struggling to make a living on small holdings but always willing to lend a hand when others are in need. On the other hand there are members of the "industrial working class" who will not lift a finger to help those worse off than themselves. So beware of generalizations. They may not serve us well.
Geoff Fischer

greywarbler said...

I have put up some Gisborne queries over on TS to try and raise some interest in getting interest beyond just helping with flood water and opening roads on the East Coast. Perhaps National may be able to extract something for Tolaga Bay and other small 'grassroots' community out of Labour, after all the years they have been in power themselves. If you look up greywarshark and Open Mike you will see about three I've put up.
It would be helpful to have some discussion on this. Cleangreen is one pseudo from Gisborne over there, but some other argument might get Gisborne on the political map, and it's forest resource, and the aftermath likely as it's trees have reached maturity.

I believe Chris you won't mind me requesting some TS input! It's all for the good of the country - that's how I am thinking. If political watchers can keep raising matters and being pointed about it as well as thinking and theorising in the background, perhaps NZ can lift ankles from the sucking mud and stand on firm ground again.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I have no doubt that on an individual level many farmers are nice people, and would gladly help out their neighbours and people they know personally. I've met some, and worked for the occasional one. It's as a group that they tend to hold extreme positions. Like I used to tell my son before he grew up – individually they are often nice people, but collectively they hate your guts.