Help Is On Its Way: Winston Peters storms home in Northland, but his historic by-election victory has raised a whole new flurry of political questions.
IT WAS WINSTON’S FINEST HOUR. The sheer scale of his Northland by-election victory had the commentariat scrabbling for superlatives. Even old enemies got into the act. In a generous tribute to the NZ First leader he betrayed, Tau Henare told TV3’s The Nation that Winston Peters must now be ranked as “the greatest Maori politician since Aprirana Ngata”.
In answering all the questions about whether or not it could be done, however, Mr Peters’ historic by-election victory has raised a host of new concerns. Let us examine three of the more important questions his win has posed.
To hold Northland will NZ First be required to veer to the Right – thereby alienating the thousands of Labour supporters whose votes provided the foundation for Mr Peters’ upset win?
Will the National Government, looking ahead to 2017 and beyond, begin to re-position itself as NZ First’s future coalition partner?
How will Mr Peters’ Northland victory influence Labour’s political positioning – especially its relationship with the Greens?
Labour, if it is wise, will seize the opportunity provided by Mr Peters’ victory to put even more distance between itself and the Greens. In his continuing effort to “re-connect” Labour with its traditional constituencies, Andrew Little must already have marked the numerous ideological affinities that draw non-National provincial voters towards one another. These are conservative people, whose personal morals and political values often place them at odds with the more “progressive” voters of metropolitan New Zealand.
The extent to which Labour’s Northland voters defected to Mr Peters indicates that, at the very least, the NZ First leader’s political values presented no insurmountable barrier to Labour’s people following their own leader’s tactical advice. Indeed, just about all the insurmountable barriers to the re-connections Labour must make if it is to regain the status of a “40 percent party” have been raised in the cities – not the provinces.
Even in the cities these obstacles persist. Labour’s traditional urban working-class supporters have more in common with their provincial brothers and sisters than many Labour Party activists are willing to admit.
Shunting-off their social revolutionaries to the Greens might decimate the ranks of Labour’s membership, but it could, equally, swell the ranks of those willing to vote for the party in 2017. Shorn of its radical fringe, Labour not only becomes a much more comfortable fit for NZ First – but also for working-class New Zealanders generally.
National’s strategists will not have overlooked this potentially decisive strategic opening for the Centre Left. So long as the voters continue to bracket Labour and the Greens as indispensable components of any future alternative government, National’s dominant position on the political chess-board will remain unchecked. There are simply too many voters ready to believe that a Labour-Green Government must involve a ruinously radical shift to the left. A re-positioning towards NZ First would, however, allow Labour to present itself as an eminently electable party of the moderate centre.
To forestall such an eventuality, National’s strategists would also have to give serious consideration to re-positioning their party towards the moderate centre. Prime Minister John Key’s highly successful strategy of “radical incrementalism” (as close advisers, Crosby|Textor call it) would have to become a lot less radical and considerably more incremental, but the party would, almost certainly, regard slowing down the pace of economic and social reform as an option to be preferred well ahead of losing the Treasury benches altogether.
Mr Peters, meanwhile, describes the Northland result as a “seismic shift” in New Zealand politics. In the light of everything he has just achieved, we would be wise to take him at his word. But a shift to what? That is the crucial question.
Mr Peters would no doubt describe his prescription as “common sense”. And if by that he means offering solutions based not on ideological assumptions, but on the pragmatic assessment of what needs to be done, and who, or what, is best placed to do it, then he is almost certainly on to something.
All over the world, from Greece to Queensland, voters are growing tired of being told, usually by the very politicians they elected to help them, that they cannot be helped. That forces over which mere politicians neither can, nor should, exercise the slightest control have already determined their fate, and that there’s nothing anyone can do.
Mr Peters great insight is that what human-beings have made, they can also unmake: that change is possible; and that New Zealanders, more than anything else, yearn to meet one another halfway, between the extremes of Right and Left.
Twenty-one years ago, Winston Peters wrote: “When one walks down the centre of the road one foot falls slightly to the right, the other to the left, but the head and the heart remain in the centre. So it is with New Zealand First.”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 March 2015.