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The New Zealand First / Alliance Struggle

With an almost identical support base, perhaps the biggest head to head party clash in the coming election promises to be between New Zealand First and the Alliance. Early signs show the Alliance is suffering as the Peters campaign takes hold. Jonathan Hill reports.

Last week New Zealand First leader Winston Peters devoted a whole speech to attacking the Alliance, claiming the party was snuggling up so close to the Labour Party that it was losing its own identity and that a vote for the Alliance might as well be a vote for Labour. Alliance leader Jim Anderton bit back immediately claiming that Peters’ refusal to commit to any political direction before the election showed that Peters’ was prepared to return a government that people were voting against. Just like at the last election.

Both leaders made a number of valid points, however the exchange of barbs last week shows that Peters has clearly made a decision to go on the offensive and take votes from the Alliance’s support base. The timing of this campaign, hard on the heels of the fortuitous Wine Box success is excellent and the move already looks to be paying dividends for New Zealand First.

The Herald DigiPoll early this month, taken a week after the Wine Box decision, showed support for New Zealand First doubling from the previous poll to 5.5 per cent and the Alliance tumbling to just 5.1 per cent. The Greens had risen to 3.1 per cent and a basic analysis suggests that the traditional Alliance support of around eight or nine per cent had splintered, with roughly two per cent going to New Zealand First and one per cent going to the Greens.

While the Greens claim to be trying to gain support from across the political spectrum, New Zealand First have identified that the Alliance voter base is also their target market – superannuitants and the anti-corporate lobby – and the struggle is now on between the two parties to see who can keep them.

The arguments advanced by each party as to why voters shouldn’t support the other are both interesting and surprisingly well grounded.

This week Peters picked up on the fact that the relationship between Labour and the Alliance has quietly been building and he claimed that the differentiating features of the Alliance have been gradually assimilated into the uneasy truce between the two parties. It is true that there appears to be some kind of informal position whereby criticism of each others policy has all but dried up, however the Alliance are still promoting their own policies strongly and with conviction, which is more than can be said for Labour.

The Alliance have taken traditionally staunch approaches to issues such as student loans and allowances, the re-reform of ACC, a State Bank and the common-sense Buy New Zealand Made campaign. Labour on the other hand have been almost apologetic over their latest three policy announcements on welfare, industrial relations and native logging which have all been ‘launched’ under the shadow of significant international developments.

However despite the Alliance promoting remarkably bold and unique policy, something about their relationship with the free-trade Labour appears to be failing with the voters. The Alliance has been a party which has always been staunchly independent, with an unshakeable conviction in their policy and direction. With the cosying up to Labour it may be that the man-alone, underdog status of Winston Peters is now holding more appeal to the voters who admired the true political independence and freedom of the Alliance.

But switching from the Alliance to Winston Peters has a very serious down side. As Jim Anderton quite rightly says, a vote for the Alliance is a vote for a change of government, and the same simply cannot be said for a vote for New Zealand First. Winston Peters is, as usual, refusing to say who his party would support post-election and it is quite possible that, on current polling, New Zealand First could hold the balance of power and return another term of a National-led government after the election.

A few weeks ago Peters denied reports that he had said he was leaning more towards a deal with the Labour Party. The independence that Winston Peters so vigorously maintains must be disconcerting for those who support his party but who also support a change of government. It must also make Jim Anderton extremely angry. However the non-commital approach of Peters, while working now, could well backfire on him closer to the election. The neither confirm or deny policy is far from safe politics and when people begin giving the election some serious thought over the next couple of months the support for Winston Peters could potentially slump again as voters recognise the possible implications of the New Zealand First vote.

Regardless, the Alliance right now will be rather worried and anxiously awaiting the next poll. They will be hoping the Herald poll will be an inconsistency although they probably know the poll was more right than wrong. They will also be feeling angry and possibly betrayed that the support for their party seems to be going off shore to the man that ultimately returned another National government and, in doing so, fundamentally distorted the principles of MMP.

How the Alliance goes about getting these votes back on board without rocking the relationship boat is the key challenge the party face between now and the election.


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