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On The Left - The Jordan Carter Columns

A bit of a hello, and the future of Winston First.

One thing I never saw myself doing while I was at high school was writing. I hated English. Managed to escape (forever I thought) its evil hold at the end of the Fifth Form. However, it now seems that I spend most of my time writing. And Scoop has asked me to write for them. How uncanny.

This column is called On The Left, because in relation to most of New Zealand's media that is where I am. Almost always it will be written by me, but there may be guest authors on occasion. They, like me, will be left wing political activists. While I am a political party activist, these are my views, and represent my thoughts - no one else's.

As a consequence of being an activist, a lot of what I write is likely to be pro-Labour. However, that doesn't mean I don't think. I'd hope that I can bring a friendly but critical view to left wing commentary. I won't make any pretence at objectivity, because there is no such thing. Being up front about my biases is important to me. Look on this as the views of someone who is Labour to the core, but writing a column - not a propaganda exercise.
--
I'm a regular Usenet junkie, particularly in the group nz.politics. Last week I found myself arguing over the future of the New Zealand First party with someone. Their view was that New Zealand First and the Alliance are targeting the same voters, and that the long term future of both is in doubt. While it is clear that Alliance support is lower than it has been for some years, their future is secure within the current electoral system.

New Zealand First, however, will disappear once Winston is gone.

In fact, it looked like the writing was on the wall after the disastrous farce that was the Coalition with the National Party. Their polling was below 2%, and Winston finally looked like he'd kicked the bucket. And yet, in polls since then, the rise and rise again of Winston Peters comes to the fore.

Why? What has he done to deserve this? My complaint is simple: at the 1996 general election, we were told that "The Only Way To Get Rid Of The National Government Is To Vote New Zealand First," and 13% of the electorate voted for that party on that basis. Then 8 weeks after the election, what happened? The impossible did, and it all went down hill from there. New Zealand First has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don't deserve anyone's support - yet they're getting it. And the Alliance, which has modified the two key features that drove voters away from them at the last election (those being their tax policies and their non-negotiable coalition stance), is polling on the edge of MMP oblivion.

So why do I contend that the Alliance's position is sustainable, while Winston's is not?

Political science (or at least the kind they teach at the University of Auckland) talks a lot about political systems and the distribution of voting. One thing that we can see in New Zealand is that historically, there has been no space for a centre party, because National and Labour have sewn that territory up by going head to head for it. No National Party or Labour Party activist or strategist will ever admit that their party isn't the party of middle New Zealand. Both have strong claims to the centre of politics, and under the historic First Past the Post electoral system, they had to fight there to win Government. This has carried over into the MMP environment, with both parties so far pushing for the centre and attacking the more radical elements of each other's policies.

Yet the rise of Winston shows that he can pull enough support from round the spectrum to call himself a "centre" party and, God forbid, hold the balance of power again. This populist stuff of recent times with fixing the Student Loans scheme (he was Treasurer; why did he not have this policy when he could have implemented it?) and Compulsory Military Training (what can one say?) merely lends credence to the idea that all that is holding them together is a desire for power.

Now some people would argue that all parties are about power. I happen to disagree. Political parties are about movements, about ideas, about ideologies and about people - as well as about power. There is not a shred of evidence that there has ever been a political party anywhere that has subsisted on pragmatism alone. To be honest that soothes me. The thought of a political movement without any ideas being sustainable in a democracy is horrifying.

Which leads to the inevitable conclusion that the shelf life of New Zealand First can be measured by the length of time Winston Peters has left in the leadership. With National and Labour competing for the centre as they do, once the remarkable Peters has shuffled off the leaders' platform, New Zealand First will sink without trace. People will have faint memories of a disastrous little party that held the country to ransom once (and maybe twice), along with a stylish politician who always wore good suits and spoke well, and that will be the end of it.

Nothing could compare more strongly with the Alliance. Their situation is remarkably similar to ACT's in political terms. As the two major parties maintain their support at 75-80% of the vote, competing for the centre ground, there is political and ideological space on either extreme for niche parties to provide more 'radical' or 'extreme' policy lines that the main parties can't support. I don't think that ACT or the Alliance will get below 5% while MMP exists; their space is one that the major parties aren't interested in contesting, and as such they are secure.

No matter who leads the Alliance after Jim Anderton retires, it will be there. No matter who leads ACT after Prebble moves on, it will be there too (much as I might like them to disappear off the political radar screen). To argue that either party will suffer the sure fate of New Zealand First betrays a gross ignorance of the nature of this country's political makeup, and of the way the electorate behaves under MMP.

Of course, for those who really don't like any of the small parties, ending MMP is the way to deal with them. And if Winston First holds the balance of power after November 27th, I'm pretty sure that MMP won't be around much longer.

Till next week,

Jordan Carter
carters@ihug.co.nz

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