CURIA RESEARCH’S (i.e. David Farrar’s) latest poll for the Taxpayers’ Union bodes very ill for the Left. Although Labour retains a commanding lead with nearly 45 percent of the Party Vote, and in spite of the fact that National still languishes in the low 20s, the gap between the parties of the Left and the parties of the Right has shrunk from nearly 20 percent to 12 percent. The direction of travel in New Zealand politics is no longer towards the Left. Unmistakeably, political sentiment is shifting rightward.
Let’s begin with the Greens. Historically, this has been considered the most left-wing political party in the New Zealand Parliament. Debatable from the outset, this characterisation has become increasingly difficult to sustain. Certainly, the departure of such recognisably left-wing Greens as Sue Bradford and Keith Locke made the designation tenuous – at best. Such ideological positioning that the Greens have undertaken since they re-entered government in 2017 has caused many observers to locate the party at the extreme end of radical Identity Politics.
Not that observers any longer have much opportunity to observe the workings of the Green Party up close and unmolested by its official gatekeepers. In its early days, under Rod Donald’s and Jeanette Fitzsimons’ leadership, the party made a positive fetish out of its openness to the news media and interested members of the public. Over the course of the last decade, however, this openness has decreased to the point where, at the party’s latest AGM, no part of the proceedings (apart from set-piece speeches from the co-leaders and a final media conference) were open to the news media.
Green supporters would, of course, object that the conferences of the main parties have for many years been similarly restricted. While that objection is true of Labour, it is less so of National. Besides, such a bare-faced defence of public exclusion sits very uneasily with a party calling itself Green. Clearly, the ultra-democratic, libertarian principles of the early Green movement have long since been replaced with … less friendly … concepts.
Perhaps it is this sense that the Greens have changed, that they are not what they were, that lies behind their 3-point loss of support. Alternatively, it could be the increasing difficulty in distinguishing the political style and content of the Green Party from that of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party which explains the shift of support from the former to the latter. Whatever the explanation, Labour will be feeling both relieved and concerned at the transfer of allegiance.
Without the influx of former Green support, Labour’s numbers would not have looked anything like so solid. The Green defectors masked the exodus of yet more of Jacinda’s 2020 supporters in a generally rightward direction. Without them, Labour’s strategists would have been fielding questions about what the mainstream news media would have delighted in calling “a precipitate loss of support”.
Being spared that headline, while gratifying, would, however, have been of only limited consolation to those same Labour strategists. The last thing they need is a Green Party hovering over the 5 percent MMP threshold, while Labour is struggling to hold a position in the mid-40s. Happiness and security is Labour at 45 percent and the Greens at 10. (Labour at 50.1 percent would, of course, be better, but elections like 2020 are once-in-a-lifetime events.)
Labour’s woes, however, must seem like the purest joy to a National Party spiralling down towards electoral destruction. One can only imagine how devastating it must have been for its strategic leadership to observe the approaching throng of former National supporters: the mostly female supporters who deserted Judith Collins for Jacinda almost exactly one year ago; pass National by and just keep right on marching to the beat of David Seymour’s Act-ivist drum. Naturally, some of them returned to the National fold, but nowhere near enough. National’s upward tick of support was well within the margin of error. Set against the roughly equal amount of support that had bled out to Winston Peters and NZ First, there really was very little to celebrate.
Only in Act were the champagne corks popping. Seymour and his team must be wondering where, exactly, the upward curve on the graph is going to stop. Could it really keep climbing all the way up to and beyond 20 percent – the figure at which surpassing National becomes practically an arithmetical certainty?
Curia Research has only hopeful things to tell them in this respect. In the key electoral real estate of Auckland, Act has already overtaken the National Party. The same is true of rural New Zealand and the small provincial towns that serve it. A torch-passing moment may be at hand: the historical supplanting of the dominant right-wing party by its tightly disciplined and pitch-perfect challenger.
It is important not to let the imagination run too wild at such moments. Older voters who backed the late Jim Anderton’s Alliance in the early 1990s will recall the days when its poll numbers soared past Labour’s, driving its centre-Left rival down to a humiliating 15 percent. But Labour, led by the steadfast Helen Clark, surged back into contention and, eventually, into the role of senior partner in the Labour-Alliance Coalition Government of 1999-2002.
National, too, can climb its way out of the hole it has dug for itself since the departure of John Key and Bill English. A fair amount of metaphorical blood will have to be shed to aid that ascent. But that is unlikely to prove an insuperable obstacle. National has never been averse to spilling a little claret.
Ironically, a fight to the finish between National and Act for the right to rule the Right may prove to a an electoral winner. Providing National chooses a personable and intelligent leader: someone capable of building a coherent and productive team. And if that team is equal to developing a policy platform which “Middle New Zealand” finds credible. Then, allowing a battle of right-wing ideas to rage between themselves and their equally engaging rivals in Act may actually end-up building the overall strength of the Right. Such an ideological struggle would certainly signal where all the intellectual and political action was.
If the Greens were still the party of Donald and Fitzsimons, it is possible they could goad Jacinda’s Labour into a similar battle of ideas. God knows, she and her party badly need to re-learn the art of arguing from first principles. Sadly, neither the Greens, nor Labour, any longer seem equipped to generate the collective excitement and individual commitment that keep the voters coming back for more.
When the smoke of the battle against Covid-19 finally clears, what additional achievements will the parties of the Left have to set before the voters – and what plans?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 October 2021.