The Politics Of Addition: The objective of all intelligent and compassionate citizens entering the polling-booths between now and 7:00pm on 23 September cannot be as narrow and sectarian as “dragging the neoliberal Labour Party” leftwards. The most important task, at this crucial moment in our country’s history, is for progressives of every ideological persuasion to provide both Labour and the Greens with the votes they need to take New Zealand forwards.
THE BIG QUESTION confronting progressive voters in this election is: how do they elect a genuine centre-left government? Is this best achieved by abandoning the Greens and delivering the entire progressive vote to Labour? Or, should at least some progressive voters step off the Jacinda Train and re-board the Greens – thereby delivering Labour a reliable and ideologically compatible coalition partner? Neither of these options are as politically straightforward as they seem. Predicting the behaviour of our friends can be every bit as difficult as anticipating the actions of our foes.
Perhaps the most reliable barometer of voter intentions is RNZ’s “Poll of Polls” (PoP). The most recent of these puts the Greens on 5.4 percent – perilously close to the 5 percent MMP threshold. Even if all of this support flowed to Labour, currently at 41.8 percent in the PoP, however, the result (47.2 percent) would be insufficient to land it on the Treasury Benches. And, of course, not every last Green voter would abandon their party for Labour, making it even less likely that Labour could form a centre-left government on its own.
The veteran left-wing activist, John Minto, is very clear about how progressive voters should resolve this problem:
“In the current political situation only the Green Party has a realistic chance of dragging the neo-liberal Labour Party significantly to the left in a post-election government. Without the Greens, Labour will tinker here and tinker there, while leaving the free market to run a country bitterly divided by poverty and inequality.”
Putting to one side, John’s bald characterisation of Labour as a “neoliberal” party, his clear preference is for progressive voters to get over their Jacinda-inspired “rush of blood to the head”, and march back into Green Party territory. The problem with this position is that it assumes the voters deciding between Labour and the Greens are engaged in a simple, zero-sum game. Walk back from Labour’s camp to the Greens’ and the level of their voter support will rise in inverse proportion to Labour’s.
But, as we have seen, this will not be enough. Simply churning the Labour/Green vote gets neither party over the line and into government. The brutal truth, which John refuses to face, is that the current “progressive vote” – if it remains static – is not quite big enough to secure a “pure” centre-left government. Once accepted, that admittedly lamentable state of affairs leaves Jacinda with only one choice. If the Left can’t get her over the line, she will have to look to the Right.
In this respect, her predicament is no different to that of Helen Clark’s in both 2002 and 2005. Once again, John’s political judgement is very clear:
“On past evidence, Labour will choose to go with New Zealand First ahead of the Greens. In their three terms from 1999 to 2008 that was the pattern.”
Except, that wasn’t the pattern at all.
In 1999, Labour was committed to forming a centre-left coalition with the Alliance. On election night, it seemed as though the Greens had (just) failed to secure any parliamentary representation at all, prompting Labour and the Alliance to fulfil their promise to the voters by announcing the formation of a clearly-signalled, centre-left government. When the Special Vote Count put the Green Party (just) over the 5 percent threshold, and deposited seven Green MPs in Parliament, they happily agreed to support the new Labour-Alliance Government on all matters of confidence and supply.
In 2002, Labour, Jim Anderton’s Progressives and the Green Party, with 63 seats between them, could very easily have formed a centre-left government. Why this didn’t happen can be explained in just two words: Genetic Engineering. The Greens had made a moratorium on the release of genetically-engineered organisms a bottom-line of any coalition agreement with Labour. But, badly stung electorally by the so-called “Corngate Scandal”, Labour was in no mood to trust the Greens on this issue. Both sides refused to compromise and the negotiations fell through. Clark turned to the “common sense” United Future Party and a deal was Dunne.
In 2005 the numbers were even tighter. The Labour/Progressive/Green seat tally came to just 57 – not enough to form a majority government. With the addition of NZ First’s and United Future’s seats, however, Clark had a comfortable working majority. Had it been up to her, the Greens would have been given at least a couple of seats in a broad coalition Cabinet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to her. Both Winston Peters and Peter Dunne had made the Greens’ exclusion from the Executive a non-negotiable condition of their support. Had the Greens won 10 seats in 2005, Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons would have become Ministers. That they were able to win only 6 seats, kept them out of the Cabinet Room and, almost literally, broke Rod’s heart.
That’s the history – and the lesson to be drawn from it couldn’t be clearer. The election of a centre-left government only becomes possible when the number of voters prepared to vote for progressive policies grows – as it did in 1999, when, between them, Labour, the Alliance and the Greens accounted for 51.64 percent of the Party Vote.
Jacinda’s ability to form a genuine centre-left government after election day will not be enhanced by swapping votes between Labour and the Greens, but by growing the vote of both parties. John’s imprecations notwithstanding, it should not be a matter of progressives already committed to voting switching their allegiance, but of their encouraging as many good-hearted New Zealanders as possible out of the Non-Vote and into the electoral fray. The objective of all intelligent and compassionate citizens entering the polling-booths between now and 7:00pm on 23 September cannot be as narrow and sectarian as “dragging the neoliberal Labour Party” leftwards. The most important task, at this crucial moment in our country’s history, is for progressives of every ideological persuasion to provide both Labour and the Greens with the votes they need to take New Zealand forwards.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 September 2017.