Flying The Flag: To be seen as a credible alternative to the National-led Government, Labour needs to command at least 40 percent of the Party Vote, and Andrew Little needs to be rated as John Key’s equal. Labour will not get there by giving every Green and NZ First Party sucker an even break – or a free ride.
THE NORTHLAND BY-ELECTION could have made life extremely difficult for John Key’s government. And it’s just possible that it still might. The thing is, had Labour been willing to throw all its local resources behind the candidacy of the NZ First leader, Winston Peters, it would have been “Game on!” for real. So, why didn’t the Labour Party follow the Greens lead and decline to field a candidate?
Some have argued that the Northland seat is so safe for National that there’s no point. That even if Winston had been allowed to run alone it would have made no difference to the final outcome. An analysis of the electorate’s voting patterns since the arrival of MMP in 1996, however, suggests that Northland might not be quite so cut-and-dried for National as the pundits think.
In 1996 and 1999, had there been only one “Opposition” candidate standing against National’s John Carter, the seat would have changed hands. (In 1999 by a margin of around 2,500 votes!) In 2002, Carter would have hung on, but only just. In 2005, however, Carter’s position was much more secure. Don Brash’s deeply conservative campaign, combined with the local candidate’s party-building efforts, had pushed out National’s winning margin to a comfortable 3,000+ votes.
National’s winning margins really took off after 2005 – but only because in the 2008, 2011 and 2014 General Elections the NZ First Party did not field a candidate. Even with this tail-wind, however, National’s momentum began easing off. From a winning margin of nearly 8,000 votes in 2008, the year John Key led his party to victory, to a more modest lead of around 5,500 votes over his three Centre-Left opponents (Labour, the Greens and Mana) in 2014.
Okay, in normal circumstances, 5,500 votes is a very comfortable winning margin. The thing about by-elections, however, is that they can very quickly morph into something thoroughly abnormal. The right candidate, with the right message, and the right sort of enthusiastic on-the-ground campaign team, can upset the electoral apple-cart in fine fashion.
Just such by-election upsets were provided by the Social Credit Party in 1978 and 1980. On both occasions the wins were a product of two, mutually reinforcing, trends. The electorate’s temporary estrangement from National, and the mass defection of Labour voters to the Social Credit candidate – whom they quite correctly identified as the person most likely to defeat the Tory incumbent. It certainly didn’t hurt that both of the successful challengers were highly telegenic and articulate spokesmen for their cause, nor that the Social Credit Party’s war-chest was bursting with cash.
Whether or not Northland might have developed into a similar runaway victory for Winston Peters we’ll probably never know. If the voters had been offered a clear-cut choice between preserving the status-quo, and reining-in a National Party showing alarmingly early signs of third-term-itis, would they have opted for the latter? Would the prospect of reducing the Government’s margin of control in the House of Representatives have pleased, or provoked, Northland voters? Would Winston’s legendary prowess at bringing home the pork for his constituents secured the old scoundrel at least a short-term lease on his whanau’s turangawaewae? With Labour’s candidate, Willow-Jean Prime, now set to siphon-off a minimum of 3,000-4,000 crucial votes, the answers are unlikely to be forthcoming.
Spoiler? Get Over It! Labour's Willow-Jean Prime.
Not that the Labour Party was ever the slightest bit interested in finding out if Winston could win the Northland by-election. Andrew Little’s eyes are fixed upon an altogether more distant electoral horizon – 2017. He is convinced that unless his own party becomes the unequivocally dominant Opposition player, the electorate as a whole will continue to shy away from the prospect of a coalition government in which Labour is merely primus inter pares – first among equals.
In the most brutal political terms, this means driving both the Greens and NZ First right down to the 5 percent MMP threshold. To be seen as a credible alternative to the National-led Government, Labour needs to command at least 40 percent of the Party Vote, and Andrew Little needs to be rated as John Key’s equal. Labour will not get there by giving every Green and NZ First Party sucker an even break – or a free ride.
Bluntly, Andrew Little’s political role model for the next three years should be Don Brash. The Nats are able to hail (heil?) their present leader as the Messiah only because his lanky predecessor took on the role of John the Baptist. “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”, in Don’s case, meant eliminating the Act, United Future and NZ First parties as serious competitors for the right-wing vote.
One of the most important factors in Brash’s undoubted success in rolling-up the Right was his Orewa Speech. It spoke to conservative New Zealanders’ growing sense of political demotion: their gnawing fear that other, less worthy, groups in society were crowding them, and their values, out of social spaces that had hitherto belonged to “mainstream” New Zealand. Like a right-wing Bill Clinton, Brash convinced conservative Kiwis that he “felt their pain”. With just 50,000 more votes he would have become their Prime Minister.
But Orewa isn’t the whole story. Brash was also assisted by the much less visible contributions of National’s ideological ninjas. Think-tanks, media assets, lobbyists, conservative preachers and sympathetic celebrities – all reiterated, where it mattered most (which was well away from the journalists’ cameras and microphones) the simple message that the only sure path to victory for the Right lay behind the National Party. In this, at least, they argued, the Left was correct: “Unity is strength.”
This is now the core mission of Andrew Little and his team, to find the means of both reassuring and activating Labour’s base. That does not mean producing his very own version of Brash’s Orewa Speech, but it does mean acknowledging the consistent messages being sent to the party by those who feel themselves to be Labour, but who no longer believe that Labour feels itself to be them.
Standing with these voters will, almost certainly, mean that a vociferous, but much smaller, number of voters will end up walking away. Little must let them go. The job of winning them back isn’t his, it belongs to Labour’s own (yet to be properly organised) ideological ninjas. On blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter; over bottles of beer at the pub and glasses of wine at the dinner-table; the labour movement’s oldest lessons must be rehearsed again and again: “If we don’t stick together, then we won’t fight together. If we won’t fight together – then we can’t win.”
The Left needs to accept and understand that the “we” in those sentences is directed at Labour’s once and future voters. Not the Greens’ – and certainly not NZ First’s.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 4 March 2015.
Marine Le Penn the nationalist politician in France recently reflected in a BBC documentary about her, that when it comes to politics there is no longer any ‘left or right, only nationalists and globalists’.
No doubt this resonates in Europe where the EU has effectively disestablished borders, imposed a common currency and hoped for the brotherhood of man to triumph.
Here in NZ over recent years we have witnessed a ‘rush to the centre’ by both National and Labour, that has effectively rinsed the colour out of both parties.
I’d be interested in your view regarding the evolution of modern politics. Is the left / right division no longer really applicable and is the new battleground nationalism vs globalism?
believe the nationalist-globalist is simply a re-expression of the right-left ....at the most basic level individual before whole-whole before individual.
There have always been nationalists, up to and including National Socialists, and globalists also – or at least free traders which is about as far as globalism goes really. But it's funny, you only ever hear the extreme right say that left and right don't matter anymore. Similarly they say that the class system is extinct. Wrong on both counts obviously, but it's a nice propaganda tool for them – with those who are naive enough to believe it. It absolves them of having to accept a label. Which in the case of Le Penn is probably a good thing, as she comes from a line of fascists.
Of course France has a tradition of fascism, going back to those who use the expression "sooner Hitler than Blum. Who tended to cooperate with the Nazi occupation of France. It also has a tradition of romantic nationalism, though that's actually just a disguise for opportunistic nationalism, which led to their defeats in Algeria and Vietnam.
However, just at the moment those in the ascendancy believe in an unregulated free-market, and as little oversight of businesses as possible, by a government bureaucracy that is starved of funds. But there are still people out there that believe the market should be regulated to protect not just the consumers, but the workers who actually produce the stuff the market requires. There are those who know that unregulated markets simply don't work. These things I suspect tend to go in cycles, though I have no actual proof of this. That's just leave it at this Brendan, that our turn will come :-).
just reminding you, playing by FPP rules harmed Labour in the last election.
We'll have to agree to disagree on this one Chris, I think you are picking it wrong. It's early in the 3yr cycle, I think the gains are much greater from NZFirst picking up this seat and Labour profiting from National finding it that much harder to get their programme through, than the hit to Labour's prestige, mana etc by not standing (or standing down) here. Little is going to have to stand on his own two feet but knocking out folk on the same side isn't as impressive as knocking out the other side. Who cares about NZFirst, Greens etc, it's deeply unimpressive to me as a left voter if Little goes after them - taking out National is the prize and if you can't go toe to toe with Key then it won't really matter what else you do. I think you confuse cause and effect. The Greens and NZ First didn't do well at Labour's expense at the last election in my view, they did well because Labour did badly. AndI don't think National came to power in 2008 thanks in part to knocking out Act etc - I think they found a candidate who was saleable, had the best media/political/image strategists money could buy on board, and someone (to her surprise) who could go it against Clark. If they'd had say Judith Collins at the helm, then they wouldn't have come to power.
So to sum, either Little has it or he doesn't, and if NZ First hands him a tougher time for Key in Government that's more to his advantage than Little holding the high ground standing a candidate in the byelection.
Brendan McNeill I think the political battleground will be between a conservative in the status quo sense of the word National party and a more progressive liberal reforming party.
I think a liberal reforming party will address the malaise of apathy and hopelessness from the likes of poor housing affordability, Piketty -inequality, the slow meltdown of the global economy and so on.
In NZ it is the progressive reforming party's that last the longest. These being the King Dick's Liberal party and the first Labour government.
No conservative government has lasted more than three terms.
In all this hullabaloo about Winston, people forget that most people rather dislike him what he has stood for in the past and will never vote for him in any circumstances.
A lot of people dislike Winston, possibly for good reasons. But I'm not sure he actually stands for anything. Except Winston :-). Still, in common with many older people I will say this, he got me a damn gold card which is more than any of you other bastards did. And he had an excellent stint at Maori affairs before he was stabbed in the back by Bolger & Co.
Bang on the money Chris. At last you realise that the Greens & Winnie parties are your first line of attack. The left should vote Labour, so that includes 90% of the currently useless Green vote. And I think the mostly old, mean spirited nationalists in Winnie First will split 50/50 between the two main parties when he leaves the stage, quite likely in 2017.
Once Labour look big enough and solid enough to lead again they will be elected relatively easily. But if they remain very beholden to two other utterly unreliable and widely distrusted 10% parties, then they are unlikely to govern. Even if they fluked it, such a coalition would not last 12 months I bet. Way too much tension dealing with two such arrogant pushy parties.
Did not Kiwi Kieth do four terms,a aspiration that our present leader would dearly love to replicate.
No conservative government has lasted more than three terms.
That's news to Keith Holyoake (1960, 1963, 1966, and 1969), and the Massey-Coates Government (1914, 1919, 1922, and 1925, plus 1911 depending on how you count it).
Well, Andrew is just dog whistled to vote Winston. Seems they're not taking advice.
Lf Winston comes a close second in Northland the labour front bench may not be concerned but those voters who are hoping for a reversal of fortunes for this government wont be so forgiving i suspect.
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