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Lessons From Britain - Richard Prebble Speech

Saturday 9th Jun 2001
Richard Prebble Speech

Speech to the Outdoor Fabric Products Association of New Zealand Gala Awards Dinner Grand Hall, Parliament, Wellington 9 June 2001

Predictably, Helen Clark is claiming that Labour’s victory in the UK means “In both New Zealand and Britain, voters are opting for pragmatic centre-left governments with positive and inclusive visions for the future” National Deputy Bill English says that New Zealand Labour is “much more ideological and left wing.”

So are there any lessons from the UK? Yes, and for both parties.

In the UK, the Economist magazine and the Times newspaper endorsed Labour for the first time ever. Why? The Economist put it this way – Labour was out Tatchering Tatcher. Tony Blair had adopted the Thatcherite agenda and was promoting it.

Not only is British Labour privatising airways, a look at British Labour manifestos reveals very radical modern progressive ideas – school choice, charter schools, private health and people’s capitalism, with a baby bonus to start every child’s life with some savings.

It reads like an ACT manifesto. In the UK Labour got elected promising no tax increases.

There is merit in the Tory claim that there have been many secret taxes, but income tax, unlike in New Zealand, has not gone up.

So the lesson for New Zealand Labour is that the way to win is to move to the centre. The Alliance and the Greens just will not let Labour do this.

If Michael Cullen had announced that the tax projections show that the 39 cent tax rate has raised no extra revenue – in fact tax revenue is down $698 million – and Labour was repealing it, I think National would have been gutted.

Make no mistake, while Helen Clark personally dislikes Tony Blair – she regards him as a lightweight – New Zealand Labour will copy as much of his campaign as they can.

New Zealand Labour’s credit card promises were a straight steal. New Zealand Labour may not be able to reduce company taxes, repeal the Resource Management Act or roll back it’s Employment Contracts Act, but Clark and Cullen are going to woo business.

Like Blair in Britain, our Labour government will ignore Willie Jackson’s demands for more policy for Maori, and continue to take working Labour households for granted.

Here is where the coalition may come unstuck.

This British election saw the lowest turnout for nearly a hundred years. Labour voters stayed at home by the millions. UK Labour was saved by three factors, two that don’t exist in New Zealand.

1. First Past the Post. The result of the fall in voting for UK Labour by it’s traditional working voters was just a reduction in their majority in the huge inner city seats. Under MMP, if Maori voters stay home, NZ Labour may still win the six Maori seats, but the Maori list vote will not be there to elect six more list MPs.

2. The Liberal Democrats split the centre-right vote, depriving the conservatives of victory in 100 seats. Under MMP the third party vote does not split the vote. In fact the left in New Zealand by having three parties is in potentially more trouble.

3. The third factor is that Conservative voters stayed at home. Over two million Conservative voters stayed at home.

Just 58% of the electorate voted in Britain, compared to 86% in New Zealand. In Britain both Labour and the Tories failed to get out the vote. Put it another way. If the Conservatives had got out their vote, Labour would have been crushed. It appears that Tony Blair has won with fewer votes than Neil Kinnock got when he lost to John Major.

Labour’s prospects of getting out the vote here in the next election do not look good.

This coalition government has done nothing for the Mike Moore constituency, the working poor, the battlers. The average Labour voting household is $30 a week worse off in real terms. As in Britain, they will not turn out to vote.

There is a lesson for the centre-right. What did Hague’s Tory party stand for? Wheeling out Margaret Thatcher to campaign against Europe just reminded the electorate how divided the conservatives are on the Euro.

National has no ideological split like the British Tories. But National is going to need some new idea and energy.

One reason ACT looks forward to elections is because our brand is so strong. ACT is the Liberal party that advocates the modern economy. ACT voters are the most likely to get out and vote on election day.

So the British elections have good news and sobering lessons. The parties that learn them best will be rewarded.


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