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On The Left - Whither the Alliance?

Monday 25 February, 2002.

A fortnight ago I said I would write on the electoral coalition Helen Clark has put together, and which I believe will win the 2002 election comfortably for the Left. Since then, we've seen the re-emergence of the splits in the Alliance that captivated columnists and the media last year.

It all seemed to go wrong with the most recent One News/Colmar Brunton poll, which showed the Alliance on a lowly 1% support. Stories of infighting and intrigue on the Alliance Council, and then that group’s incendiary response to Matt Robson's nomination as an Alliance list candidate, brought to people's minds all the tensions of the past, which many people thought the Alliance had successfully resolved last year.

First, a comment about the poll. It seems likely that the 1% showing is a rogue poll for the Alliance. It marks an overly sharp drop from their 3% rating in December last year, and it contradicts the results of the earlier UMR poll published in the National Business Review, which showed the Alliance at a respectable 4.8% support. Most commentators acknowledge that the UMR poll is better at recording minor party support, while usually exaggerating Labour’s support at National’s expense.

Interestingly, and unusually, the One News/Colmar Brunton poll showed Labour polling 51% - 3% higher than UMR recorded. The combined vote for Labour and the Alliance together was 52% in the ON/CB poll, and 52.8% in the UMR poll. If you add in the Greens, you get 57% for the "left" in the ON/CB poll, and 58.6% in the UMR.

Essentially, what these numbers show is that the broad left's support has not changed; the ON/CB poll probably exaggerates Labour's support at the expense of the Alliance. If the Alliance continues to exhibit its current level of division and debate in public, it seems likely that their support will erode, and Labour will benefit.

There's some rightful concern at this thesis. Most people on the left value the Alliance as a party to the left of Labour, with a consistent and coherent ideological programme rooted in the heart of a broad movement of left wing thought. I and others have argued in the past there is space for such a party in New Zealand's political system, and I for one believe that remains true. If the Alliance can sort its internal issues out, then I think they will again be present in Parliament after the election, maybe with fewer MP's but still at the heart of the Government.

The interesting thing all this debate obscures is somewhat removed from this apparent immediate crisis – it is an issue of the level of support the left as a whole can expect in the coming general election.

If you look back at election results in New Zealand over the past 20 years, the only time parties of the right have outpolled parties of the left is 1990. At elections in 1978, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1993, 1996 and 1999, Labour and associated parties have outpolled National and its colleagues on the right.

Current polling, including the Greens, indicates a sustained 55%+ share of the vote for the left, which is maintained so long as Labour does not lose the middle ground. The MMP electoral system has brought this elemental electoral arithmetic to the fore. We never experienced, as for example the UK did, an ongoing and catastrophic split in the left vote to keep Labour out of power for decades at a time. Fortunately, MMP removes the possibility of this ever occurring here.

We did, however, experience towards the end of the FPP electoral system a realisation by the right that the odds in an MMP environment were severely stacked against them. It is this that explains the ferocity of the attacks against MMP by business interests and by the National Party as the system was established. It must be a living nightmare to right wing activists and supporters that they have not enjoyed a plurality of the popular vote for a very long time, and further that they last achieved one only in the face of a Labour Party that had strayed too far from its roots.

No such danger exists today, which is why I feel on safe grounds asserting that Helen Clark’s electoral coalition will hold not only in 2002, but on into the future. Barring any major economic crises or political mistakes, a centrist Labour Party is unlikely to be defeated at the polls.

If the contentions above are correct and the left wins re-election in 2002, then the focus of the next Parliamentary term needs to be on deepening that support. The middle classes are backing Labour, and they like the change in direction delivered so far, but they have been fickle in the past, and it would be foolish for anyone to assume they cannot be fickle again. Party identification is low, and was lowered by the farce of New Zealand First’s conduct in 1996. Labour’s challenge this term was to prove that MMP can deliver stable, predictable government, and that has been well and truly proved.

After 2002, the challenge is to build that support into a more durable base. The way to do that is to deliver policies and a political vision that ordinary people can hang on to. Some of the building blocks have been put in place already, but more remains to be done. If voters show at the election that they support the change in direction achieved so far, we can look forward to a much more confident debate about the country’s future, led by a growing labour movement and parties on the left committed to progressive policy.

In all that, the Alliance’s internal turmoil seems somehow less significant. If the Alliance disappears off the electoral landscape, the Labour Party retains an ally in the Greens. There will remain space on Labour’s left, and so hopefully the Alliance will retain that niche, as their outlook is closer to Labour than that of the Greens. Either way, the prospects for the left as a whole are looking good.

Till next time,

Jordan Carter carters@ihug.co.nz

President, NZ Young Labour

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