Victory Lies Ahead, Comrades! Allowing the Greens to make the case for change; assessing the force and quality of the Right’s objections; and then, following a period of extensive consultation, fashioning a suite of reforms acceptable to a solid majority of New Zealanders. Such is the royal-road to making Labour the dominant force in New Zealand politics.
IT’S NOT OFTEN in electoral politics that a party is given a second chance to get it right. In 1999, Labour and the Alliance (with the Greens more-or-less in tow) were gifted the chance to craft a political relationship that could have grown into a near-permanent lock on New Zealand’s still-new MMP electoral system. That neither partner in the Labour-Alliance coalition had the wit to seize, or even understand, the opportunity before them is a testament to the woeful immaturity of the New Zealand Left.
Perhaps the best way to describe the opportunity missed by Labour and the Alliance (and, after 2002, the Greens) is by deploying a military analogy.
Think of Labour as a large army marching through enemy territory. (The analogy works best if the army you’re imagining is a nineteenth century one – think of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.) The much smaller army of the Alliance is spread out well ahead of Labour’s line of march. Its role: to reconnoitre the territory into which Labour is marching; noting the disposition of the enemy’s troops; their strongpoints; and the places where their defences are weak and vulnerable to attack. Should the enemy encounter the smaller force, the resulting engagement will give the larger army plenty of time to prepare its defences.
For a while, it looked as though the Labour-Alliance combination had decided to work in precisely this fashion. The radical policies of the Alliance – especially those relating to employer-funded Paid Parental Leave and the rolling-back of the Employment Contracts Act – provoked a vehement backlash from the business community. Labour was, thereby, warned in advance of exactly where and how the enemy would attack these measures if they were adopted as official government policy.
Unfortunately, Labour failed to make good strategic use of this advance warning. When the business community’s counterattack came (in the form of the infamous “Winter of Discontent” of the year 2000) Labour fell back in confusion. The Alliance’s policies were slaughtered. Never again would the centre-left armies of Helen Clark and Jim Anderton engage the forces of the Right across such a broad front.
Indeed, in the General Election of 2002, the forces of the centre-left found themselves fighting each other. Labour and the Greens, at loggerheads over the issue of Genetic Engineering, were unwilling to march together. Abandoned by its natural ally, Helen Clark reluctantly joined forces with Peter Dunne’s United Future Party.
Reassured that there would be no more left-wing offensives, National concentrated on reinvigorating its worn-out fighting machine and prepared to take the fight to Labour. In 2005, Labour just managed to hold them at the border. But, in 2008, National brushed aside Helen’s broken army and occupied huge swathes of Labour territory.
Nine years later, under the command of its Joan-of-Arc-like leader, Jacinda Ardern, Labour is again presented with the opportunity to take the fight to the Right. Once again, they have an opportunity to send their radical allies out ahead of their main force to draw enemy fire and provide Labour with the information required to seize the strategic initiative.
If Ms Ardern and her advisers decline to accept this second chance to put things right – or, in this context, left – then they will, once again, have denied to themselves, their party, and their radical Green allies, the opportunity of making steady progressive reform New Zealand’s political default setting.
Allowing the Greens to make the case for change; assessing the force and quality of the Right’s objections; and then, following a period of extensive and authentic public consultation, fashioning a suite of reforms acceptable to a solid majority of New Zealanders. Such is the royal-road to making Labour the dominant force in New Zealand politics.
The test will be whether or not Ms Ardern is willing to follow the example of her mentor Helen Clark. In 1999, with the Greens under sustained attack from National, Ms Clark tipped the wink to Labour’s Coromandel supporters to give their electorate vote to the Green co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons.
If, next week, the Greens are still at risk of falling below the 5 percent MMP threshold, and Ms Ardern tips the wink to Labour’s Wellington Central voters to back James Shaw, then we can be sure that the forces of Centre-Left are, once again, on the march.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 September 2017.