"When the hurlyburly's done,/ When the battle's lost and won.": Having come within a whisker of winning 50 percent of the popular vote, National's position on the Right has grown even more hegemonic. But what of the Left? What can we expect to see emerge from the rout and ruin in 2011?
“ROUT AND RUIN” was my bleak reply to the e-mail from Glasgow. A friend had asked “How bad is it?” What else could I say? Labour’s 2011 Party Vote was an eye-watering 165,000 votes shy of 2008’s. At 27.1 percent, the Party’s share of the popular vote was only marginally greater than the 24.2 percent it attracted in 1919 – the very first general election it contested.
The crucial difference, of course, was that in 1919 Labour was the new kid on the political block. Barely three years old, it was bursting with enthusiasm and eager to replace the ailing Liberal Party as the principal opponent of Bill Massey’s Reform Party government.
Fast-forward 92 years and it is Labour that is ailing. New Zealand’s oldest political party is being challenged on all fronts by younger, more vibrant organisations – most particularly the Greens. With close to 11 percent of the Party Vote, the latter’s level of support is now approaching half that of Labour’s, an ominous statistic for the party which used to be able to count on attracting seven votes for every one that went to the Greens.
Labour’s dramatic debut on the hustings in 1919 ushered in a decade and a half of extraordinary political turbulence that only ended with the Labour Party victory of 1935 and the creation of the National Party the following year. The 2011 general election result suggests that New Zealand may be about to re-enter the sort of agitated political air it last encountered in the 1990s.
The difference, this time, is that the turmoil within the party system is not being driven by the sound of ideologies clashing (or crashing) as they were (and did) in the days of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. This time it is the absence of strong ideological themes in our domestic politics that is generating the instability – especially on the centre-left.
What does Labour really stand for in 2011? It most certainly does not stand for the socialist aims and objectives proclaimed by Harry Holland’s Labour Party in 1919. Indeed, two of the most important policies promoted by Phil Goff’s Labour Party in 2011: the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax; and lifting the age of eligibility for superannuation from 65 to 67; could just as easily have emerged from a moderate conservative party.
Moderation has also been the watchword among Green Party strategists in 2011. Gone are the apocalyptic, doom-saying Green Party MPs of yesteryear, and in their place we find the coolly rational Dr Russel Norman, laconically peddling non-threatening economic solutions in a pale green suit. Dr Norman openly proclaims his party’s intention of taking Green politics “mainstream”: moving out beyond the gentrified streets of the inner-cities to the sprawling suburbs of “Middle New Zealand” where modern elections are won and lost.
There was a time when Labour was extremely competitive in these leafy suburbs. But the Greens’ emergence into double figures, Party Vote-wise, suggests that the well-educated, environmentally-conscious, middle-class New Zealander with a social conscience – the demographic that has provided Labour with its winning electoral edge for the best part of three decades – may, finally, have completed its migration from red to green.
But a Labour Party reduced to what are now its core demographics of Pakeha superannuitants, low-paid Pasifika and Maori, and beneficiaries of all colours and creeds, offers a very poor match for the politics and policies of moderation. The diminishing parliamentary assortment of middle-class professionals, civil servants and trade union officials that sits atop Labour’s demographic rump look less-and-less like the people it purports to represent. So much so, now, that the notion of the brown, the poor and the elderly one day deciding to cut out these middle-men and women, and represent themselves, is acquiring an aura of inevitability. Hone Harawira and his Mana Party will be hoping so.
But Mana has a lot of growing to do before it can hope to compete with the party that re-emerged from the electoral shadows with a pundit-smiting 6.8 percent of the Party Vote: NZ First.
Winston Peters’ success hinges upon his instinctive grasp of the issue that will increasingly come to dominate the politics of the next decade: the issue of economic sovereignty. How to foster not only the domestic control and utilisation of the nation’s resources, but also the cultural and political confidence required for their successful defence.
In this respect, as a party identified with economic sovereignty and national identity, NZ First may prove to be the opposition party with the greatest potential for growth. Because the New Zealand electorate has given Winston Peters and his new caucus that rarest and most precious of gifts: the opportunity to learn from past mistakes, and lay claim again to the gratitude of posterity.
Proof, indeed, that “rout and ruin” can be overcome.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 November 2011.