Tuesday 5 April 2011

Filling The Vacuum

Taking Our Votes Elsewhere: As Labour gives every appearance of conceding the 2011 election to John Key's National-led Government by default, left-leaning voters are already considering shifting their allegiance to its potential coalition partners - just as they did when Labour worshiped neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s.

NATURE ABHORS a vacuum – and so does politics. With Labour’s front bench and the Party’s ruling council both declining to deal decisively with Phil Goff’s inadequate political leadership, left-leaning voters have been given a powerful incentive to look elsewhere for progressive representation this November.

Not since the early 1990s has Labour provided its competitors with such a huge opportunity to enlarge their electoral support base.

Twenty years ago tens-of-thousands of left-leaning voters deserted Labour for Jim Anderton’s Alliance and Winston Peter’s NZ First parties. And who could blame them? With unrepentant Rogernome, Mike Moore, at Labour’s helm; and the betrayals of the Rogernomics era still very bitter in their mouths?

That mass disillusionment with Labour produced some spectacular electoral outcomes. In 1993, for example, the combined support of the two “insurgent” parties topped out at 26.4 percent – just 8 percentage points behind Labour’s tally.

It wasn’t until August 1998 that Labour was finally persuaded to make the necessary political and policy adjustments to return to office. And they did not do it alone. In order to become prime minister, Helen Clark had first to make her peace with Jim Anderton and the Alliance.

I reiterate this recent political history only because Phil Goff and his colleagues appear to have forgotten it. That government, under New Zealand’s proportional system, is a shared responsibility – involving not just one, but several, political parties.

Labour will not receive sufficient votes in the forthcoming general election to govern alone. Before it can take office it will require, at the very least, the support of the Greens and quite possibly the votes of a successful NZ First Party as well.

So long as Labour demonstrates both an appetite for power and the means to attain it, a solid majority of left-leaning voters will remain in its camp. In such circumstances, Labour’s potential allies, the Greens and NZ First, must be content to trawl for votes at the political margins – scrabbling for the 10-15 percent of the electorate whose electoral needs Labour cannot, or will not, meet.

But the events of the past fortnight suggest that Labour possesses neither the appetite nor the means for winning power. On the contrary, its caucus and council appear quite blind to their party’s growing leadership deficit. With electoral defeat now regarded as inevitable, the No. 1 priority of Labour’s front bench is how to emerge from the post-election blood-letting at the head of the pack.

This growing leadership deficit recalls the fatal ideological deficit which plagued the Labour Party throughout the 1990s. Impervious to both internal and external criticism, Labour then, and now, somehow convinces itself that a decision to abandon its core constituency to the lash of neoliberal extremism carries with it no serious electoral consequences.

But if Labour’s front bench, trapped inside the opaque bubble of its own ambition, believes that defaulting the 2011 general election will do no lasting damage to its electoral fortunes, then it seriously misjudges the moral temper of its left-leaning supporters.

A healthy Labour Party generally attracts four-fifths of the Left’s support, or around 40 percent of the Party Vote, leaving its ideological allies to squabble and fight over the remaining fifth. But a Labour Party so self-absorbed it’s ready to abandon tens-of-thousands of its core supporters to the “discipline” of the marketplace must expect its share of the Party Vote to fall below 35 percent. (In 1996 it fell to just 28 percent.)

This is mostly because disgruntled left-leaning voters will attempt to off-set Labour’s self-inflicted weakness by strengthening the hands of its potential coalition partners. But even conservative voters may toss a vote the insurgent parties’ way if they feel the National Party lacks effective opposition.

If, over the next seven months, the Greens and NZ First are able to present coherent, practical alternatives to the left-leaning half of the New Zealand electorate, I’m convinced Labour’s share of the Party Vote will plummet. Increasingly the election will become a contest between a nascent coalition of parties offering a radical left alternative to the Government’s bleak neoliberal austerity, and a National Party hell-bent on securing 50 percent-plus-one of the Party Vote.

This will not be a healthy development.

A country dominated electorally by two large and reassuringly pragmatic political parties can anticipate a high degree of ideological, economic and social stability. A country which finds itself locked in an all-or-nothing struggle between two intensely antagonistic ideological blocs should expect none of these things.

This is the true measure of Labour’s failure as an Opposition. It has encouraged the most extreme elements in the National Party and Government to believe they can pursue their radical economic and social agendas without fear of adverse electoral consequences.

There is no law of nature – or politics – which requires a vacuum to be filled by pleasant things.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 April 2011.


Anonymous said...

Twenty years ago tens-of-thousands of left-leaning voters deserted Labour for Jim Anderton’s Alliance and Winston Peter’s NZ First parties.

Um, Winston's support was the Rob's Mob of National.
Labour split into Labour, the Alliance and Act.


Chris Trotter said...

No, not really, Anonymous@4:29.

One of Winston's most ardent supporters was the veteran left-winger and writer, Bruce Jesson.

Up until he allowed Michael Laws to re-write Terry Heffernan's excellent economic policy, Winston had quite a lot of cross-over appeal.

Certainly the National Party hard-liners saw him as a left-leaning drag on "reform" - which is why, as soon as Bolger was deposed, they went straight for him and his party.

Anonymous said...

At least the Alliance provided a left of labour alternative.

Neither the Greens nor NZ First can be trusted or relied on by workers. The Greens are an elitiest party, easily seduced by capitalist greenwash and NZ First is a one man band, reliant on the mercurial Peters who is capable of coming up with good policies but not of surronding himself with people capable of implementing them.

It is a sad time for anyone who wants a shift to the left and believes the ballot box is the best way to achieve change.

There is still time for someone in the labour caucus to show some leadership and step forward to replace Goff.

They don't have to win - just offer a decent fight and some hope.

Philoff said...

"trapped inside the opaque bubble of its own ambition"

That's about the size of it.

They are convinced that they just have to wait for the Chch quake, unemployment, retrenchment and the All Blacks losing the World Cup, and they'll waltz back in to save the day.

OR, that there is no way that ANYONE can beat Key, so they may as well wait for Goff so they can blame him.

It seems to be a combination of arrogance and self-interest that is keeping them from making changes and/or rolling Goff.

The problem with Goff is that he would probably really like to be in Key's Cabinet.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree Chris, that Labour's feeble fightback against National's rampant capitalism leaves the door open for the Greens. I doubt the old Alliance or Winston can muster the money or organisation to cross the 5% threshold.

Which begs the question - why, oh why, have the minor parties not forced Labour and National to ditch the 5% threshold? This is the primary barrier to new parties forming and nibbling away at the dominance of the major parties. Labour and National know this, which is why the imposed the 5% barrier, when the natural barrier is 0.83% (= 100%/120 seats). Even now, the minro parties could force the issue - demand its urgent removal, or Labour and National have to go to the polls now, or form a grand coalition that would hurt them both.

But that aside, do the Greens have the ambition and the respect for democracy to become the major left party? Their most ambitions target seems to have been 15% of the party vote - but people vote for someone confident enough to say 'vote for me to BE the government', not the hangon.

And the Greens love democracy for their members alone - which is a tiny fraction of their 120,000 voters. Ask yourself, what environmental measures did the Greens put up last term; compare with their social engineering (prostitution legalised, smacking banned, gay adoption of kids, etc)...

The Greens at the moment appear to be the Fran Wilde's of the 2010s - willing for anti-capitalism and environment to be bought off for their social agenda, while Rogernomics is rammed through. This is a huge barrier to most Kiwis, including lefties.

If the Greens are to step up, they need to clearly reject liberal and Keynesian capitalism, and make clear a new economic agenda that cleans the environment and supports workers. Their Green New Deal does not cut the mustard - it is Helen Clark's liberal capitalism lite.

Time are grim, but we hold onto hope.
Mad Marxist.

Anonymous said...

This could be a really good year for Winston, he may pick up a good share of Labour's flagging vote, enough to put him back in the Hoouse, depending on whether National will work with him or not.

Interesting times. Labour seems to be fulled with in-fighting and factional splits. All is really ruling them?

Sanctuary said...

"...They don't have to win..."

I agree with this. Under MMP, all the left has to do is to stop National winning - where winning is clearly defined as achieving an absolute majority to claim as a mnadate to basically suspend democracy and restart the rogernomics revolution.

For the left, at the moment political stalemate would be counted as a poltical victory.

Anonymous said...

A real victory would be providing an alternative to neoliberalism.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure which country most of the other posters are living in but it doesn't appear to be NZ. You're suggestions that we live in a nation that is experiencing rampant capitalism (Mad Marxist, 12:49) run by Neoliberals (Anon, 9:10. Yet we have a huge welfare state, free healthcare and free education. That's not to mention interest free student loans, free travel for millionaire pensioners and a burgeoning public sector catering to all aspects of our society.

If we actually lived in a country of rampant capitalism we'd have few, if any of these things. Perhaps a moment of reflection and step back to look at reality is needed.

Is it any wonder that Labour and the wider left aren't getting any traction if the hyperbolic and exaggerated diatribes here are anything to go by?

If the left really believe that Bill English and John Key are Chicago School neoliberals then they're going to spend a lot longer out in the cold than many of the readers of this blog would want.

Victor said...


You are correct in writing that neither Bill English nor John Key are Chicago School Neo Liberals.

Even so, they persist in propagating the myth that the root of New Zealand's problems lies in our miniscule public debt and not in our hugely extravagant and non-productive private spending and borrowing, which have now been further facilitated by tax cuts for the better off.

Bruce said...

There is certainly a vacuum to be filled. As an example there has been little open debate on how the country should fund the massive cost for the reconstruction of Christchurch with the Government's main response seemingly to borrow more and to cut into spending programmes or sell assets where they can blame the eathquake but where they have no mandate from the electorate. It is my understanding that Labour's approach is to borrow as well.

At least the Greens are arguing for a special time limited levy/tax to be funded by those most able to pay. To me this has a lot going for it as it ring fences funds specifically for the reconstruction; it creates ready accountability for the custodian of those funds; it leaves Governmnet programmes in place to support the needy across the country; and it does not mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren when inevitably they will have natural disasters of there own to recover from in the years ahead.

Well done the Greens.

Anonymous said...

Since the column was written we have seen the National Government effectively announce a bail-out of insurer AMI, to add to the ongoing money-go-round of South Canterbury finance; as well as general fiscal weakness. Given that National are willing to consider 'nationalising' an insurance company, and create new departments specific to Canterbury, this must be fertile ground. Either the government has ditch a lot of the neo-liberal policy, or the fiscal consequences of the above will be dire for the rest of the country. Of course Labour could ruin this political opportunity, but I'm sure Winston won't, and Russell Norman has been strong on the financial issues.

While we have MMP, Labour's weakness is not so bad. But the current government is propped up by electorate MPs, and the 2008 result involved only three parties getting over the threshold. It was more like an FPP environment, and so we should be looking to improved minor party performance to legitimate the MMP system.

Unknown said...

The Left has nothing to fear from a National led Government, as the actions of John Key and Bill English demonstrate. They are totally pragmatic, with hardly a 'hat tip' to their historically conservative philosophical base.

Unlike Helen Clark, they have no ideological framework to shape policy settings. John Key himself has stated that he not really an ideological person.

The issue is not who can the Left vote for, but who can those of us liberal conservatives vote for?

The Left has never had it so good since Rob Muldoon, perhaps with the possible exception of Helen Clark's recent government.

Left voters should be celebrating in the streets, and campaigning for National. They will continue to borrow and redistribute us all to the brink of economic ruin with the same determination as any Labour Government of your choosing.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure which country most of the other posters are living in but it doesn't appear to be NZ. You're suggestions that we live in a nation that is experiencing rampant capitalism (Mad Marxist, 12:49) run by Neoliberals (Anon, 9:10. Yet we have a huge welfare state, free healthcare and free education. That's not to mention interest free student loans, free travel for millionaire pensioners and a burgeoning public sector catering to all aspects of our society."

Which is what makes The Standard more satire than biting political critique.

Its hard to claim one self as a socialist when the party you support doesn't actually adhere to socialism anymore.

jh said...

Is the child in the photo tangatawhenua or tauiwi? Does she have permission to be in the rohe?
If not why not (after all) "all you have to do is ask!"