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The Carter Columns - On The Left This Week

On The Left


by Jordan Carter

This election has raised the potential for a perpetual coalition of the centre left to take power in New Zealand in perpetuity. The chances of such an outcome are pretty damned good at this point - all that has to happen is for the players to remain on the same side.

Labour is, oddly enough, a little bit pissed off about the ascension of the Greens to Parliament. People I've spoken to aren't happy that we've lost three very good Members of Parliament, and are even less pleased that the Government is reduced to 59 seats in the house. While it will be more than possible to run a successful Government without an absolute majority in the house, the media no doubt will use any stick it can find to beat us with.

I'm quite convinced that, despite the temporary setback the rise of the Greens represents for an easy majority coalition Government, in the longer term Labour will remember this election as a key change in direction for the country, and potentially the establishment of a centre left hegemony in electoral terms for a good long time.

Allow me to expand on that idea in two stages; firstly by explaining how I see the party system developing, and then with a word or several on the idea of voting coalitions and their maintenance.

By the time the 2002 election rolls around, the configuration of the party system will be somewhat different to what it is now. This discussion is predicated on the idea that the new Government will have a successful and popular first term, and that skillful political management will continue to sideline Winston Peters and make it impossible for him to re-establish a presence as the centre party he never was.

The Greens will hold on to Coromandel in 2002, and Peters will lose Tauranga to a strong Labour candidate. National will make no electorate gains, but will increase its share of the party vote to about 33-35%. ACT, weakened by internal division and the fact of no electorate seats, as well as their extremism in relation to the leftward shifting centre ground of politics, will score only 5-7% of the vote.

Compared to this, the Greens will score somewhere between 4-7%, securing a large sector of the youth vote for the centre-left. The Alliance will retain somewhere between 5-9% of the vote, perhaps more if they do well on the job creation front. And Labour should be able to push its share of the vote above 40%, if the lessons of this campaign are learned, and MP's with safe electorate seats make a very heavy pitch for the party vote.

While the numbers may be out, the core fact to notice is that there are three viable centre left parties represented in Parliament, and only two on the right. There are two non-relevant parties in my view, New Zealand First and United (touching wood). This puts the right in a very difficult position. Basically, to win an election and form a Government, National would have to score over 43% of the vote. In contrast, Labour only has to score 39-40%. These are not happy numbers for National.

The fact of three centre left parties gives opponents cheer, because they think we'll descend to a rabble of division and infighting. Well, I can't claim to speak for anyone other than myself, but as far as I'm concerned, such an argument reveals a gross ignorance and arrogance on the part of those who make it. The left hasn't won an election in New Zealand since 1972, and it seems to me that we have learned well the price division extracts. Nobody wants to be in opposition again; we know we can't make this country a better place without controlling the levers of power.

Everyone is aware of what a National ACT coalition would be like, and that's a powerful force for unity on the left - at the very least for the first term of Government.

Electorally, the position is a very good one too. Labour can campaign as the moderate mainstream of the Government, and can appeal to National and former NZ First voters worried about the two smaller parties. The Alliance can appeal to those who endorse a more strongly left wing programme, based around higher taxation and social spending. The Greens, too, appeal across the spectrum to some extent. Especially to younger voters, they stand for a 'fresh' approach to politics unmatched by anything on the right. This broad coalition has a wider appeal than anything the left has offered New Zealand voters before, and is certainly more inherently attractive than National and ACT.

The challenge for the two small parties on the left is to prove their critics wrong, and show that far from being weird, or extremist, or any of the other catty calling names the right and the media choose to use about them, they are capable of being a productive part of Government. They are. They just need to show it. Both parties have politicians of immense ability and formidable political vision, which are capable of gaining a very secure electoral niche in coalition with mainstream democratic socialism as represented by the Labour Party.

My own interest will be in seeing how Labour responds to the pressures presented by the two small parties. Clearly the Alliance is the senior of the two of them, but that might not always be the case. Labour's instinct to want to do everything is visible in the Cabinet line up announced this week, where the Alliance has been given either minor portfolios or one specific area, where they face a real policy challenge. The transition from First Past the Post to MMP is taking longer than I thought it would in attitudinal terms, but that's ok. This first left wing MMP Government is on much more solid foundations than the last Government was, and will last correspondingly longer.

So, the possibility is there for a very long term left wing hegemony in the electoral system. Three parties, all on the left, all drawing support from differentiated parts of society, leave National staring at a very long time on the opposition benches. All we have to do is make it work.

Till next week,

Jordan Carter.

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