A Left Wing Party? You Must Be Joking! With the election of the Fourth Labour Government in July 1984 it became increasingly evident that the ideological dividing line in New Zealand ran not between National and Labour but between the Right of the Labour Party and an increasingly diverse and variegated Left.
THERE’S A REASON Labour finds the presence of political parties to its left so uncomfortable. It’s the same reason an ageing actor feels so uncomfortable sharing the stage with a more dynamic and younger rising star. The ability to compare and contrast is deeply subversive of undeserved reputations.
Labour’s uneasiness with political diversity also largely explains its apparent inability to abandon First-Past-The-Post thinking. From Labour’s point of view, FPP is the ideal electoral system. It virtually guarantees that a nation’s politics will be dominated and defined by two parties: one representing “The Left” and the other “The Right”.
The choices for electors are thus radically simplified. In much the same way that Radio NZ still grossly oversimplifies the discussion of New Zealand politics by subsuming the myriad subtleties and complexities of Right and Left in the orthodox political commentary of Matthew Hooton and Mike Williams.
From the perspective of Labour’s parliamentary caucus, the great advantage of reducing New Zealand’s politics to this essentially binary formation is that it allows them to pretend that the ideological dividing-line separating right-wing from left-wing New Zealanders runs between the National and Labour parties.
The maintenance of this plausible, but mistaken, perception has become critical to the preservation of New Zealand’s enviable reputation for political stability. The two major parties have devoted tremendous effort to promulgating the pernicious fiction that the extraordinary upheavals of the 1980s left the fundamental structure of New Zealand politics essentially unchanged.
The validity of the historically indisputable Left/Labour–Right/National dichotomy had been subject to academic challenge since the late 1950s, but with the election of the Fourth Labour Government in July 1984 it became increasingly evident that the ideological dividing line in New Zealand ran not between National and Labour but between the Right of the Labour Party and an increasingly diverse and variegated Left.
The proof of this lay in the fact that switching National for Labour, or Labour for National, made no significant difference to the way the country was run. The dominant right-wing faction of Labour’s caucus ensured that the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s would undergo no significant alteration by any government over which they held sway.
It was this effective neutralising of democracy which more-or-less guaranteed the introduction of MMP. The latter’s arrival should also have exposed the fiction that Labour MPs, simply by virtue of their Labour Party membership status, could be excluded from the ranks of those who opposed a radical revision of New Zealand politics. Unfortunately, the binary thinking so deeply-ingrained in our political system encouraged left-of-Labour parties like the Alliance and the Greens to persist with the pretence that National and its allies constitute the primary political target.
Ironically, David Cunliffe’s election as Labour leader, by the left-wing majority of his party, has made the perpetuation of this pretence easier, not harder. The right of Labour’s caucus which viciously opposed Cunliffe’s candidacy were, nevertheless, permitted to survive his victory, remaining well-positioned to thwart any attempt to match their new leader’s left-wing rhetoric with an equally left-wing strategy of outreach and accommodation with parties to Labour’s left.
Accordingly, these past two months have witnessed the Labour Right plotting in plain sight to exclude the Greens from any meaningful role in a Cunliffe-led Labour Government. Their “the more things change, the more they’ll stay the same” strategy has, however, been thrown into disarray by the intervention of Kim Dotcom’s money and Hone Harawira’s strategic dexterity. The lavishly funded and potentially decisive force now assembling to the left of the Greens under Hone Harawira and Laila Harré has forced the Labour Right onto the offensive.
Keep it up, guys! Long may the radio interviews, tweets and Facebook postings of Kelvin Davis, Phil Goff, Chris Hipkins, Trevor Mallard and Stuart Nash reverberate through cyberspace. New Zealanders have suffered for far too long from the Labour Right’s masterful misdirection. It’s time we realised that the paths they urge us to avoid are the paths to follow.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 June 2014.