Everything But: Why Labour is distancing itself from the Greens.

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UTTER ASTONISHMENT. That was my first reaction to the news that Labour would not be campaigning for a “Labour/Greens government”. As someone who chronicled closely the fortunes of the Alliance, the eventual announcement of a Red-Green coalition had seemed a no-brainer. I was there when Helen Clark and Michael Cullen arrived at the 1998 Alliance Conference. I remember the deafening cheers that greeted Jim Anderton’s resolution that Alliance and Labour become coalition partners. I knew right then that National’s fate was sealed – and most of the subsequent polls agreed.

Not long ago the Greens came to Labour with a very similar invitation. According to Gordon Campbell (who, as a former Green staffer, ought to know):

“The two parties would have agreed (a) to campaign together and (b) to brand themselves as a future Labour/Greens government. The proposal also (c) sought agreement that Cabinet posts would proportionately reflect the number of seats won by each of the partners. (Presumably, this arithmetic would have applied to any other coalition partners as well.) Lastly, the invitation (d) sought a common strategy on how to work together with New Zealand First.”

On the face of it, this seems an entirely reasonable proposition. Labour’s historically low polling (30-33 percent) indicates the inevitability of a coalition government and, as the country’s third largest party, such a coalition could hardly fail to include the Greens. Why not acknowledge the reality of this situation by openly campaigning for a Labour/Greens government? As the Greens co-leader, Russel Norman told Morning Report (on 10/4/14) such an arrangement would, at the very least, make for a better informed electorate.

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And yet, Labour has clearly made a strategic decision to reject the Greens’ proposition and campaign instead for a “Labour-led government”.

Why?

The answer, I believe, is to be found in the voters Labour’s campaign strategists (most particularly the political scientist and polling specialist, Rob Salmond) have identified as the primary target of Labour’s election campaign. These are not the legendary “missing million” who declined to cast a ballot three years ago, but a much more manageable group of around 300,000 men and women who have voted for Labour in the past (2005, 2008) but who, for a whole host of reasons, sat out the General Election of 2011.

Salmond’s argument is that these voters can be readily “re-activated” if Labour presents them with a plausible pitch for their support. The key-word there is “plausible”, and outside Labour-held electorates in the main centres there is every reason to believe that the phrase “Labour/Greens government” does not pass the plausibility test.

The evidence for this comes, paradoxically, from the National Party. Simon Bridges’ ridiculous comments about the 50-odd mining permits issued on Russel Norman’s watch is only the most extreme example of what is obviously an agreed Government strategy to conflate Labour and the Greens into a single, politically extreme, electoral bogeyman. David Farrar’s polls and Crosby-Textor’s focus-groups have clearly thrown up a powerful negative reaction to the idea of Labour joining forces with the Greens. So much so that National is doing everything within its power to imbed the idea deep in the electorate’s psyche.

And, if National’s voter research is picking up this negative anti-Green vibe, how long can it be before Labour’s own pollster, UMR, and its focus-group convenors start detecting similar sentiments in their own samplings? And if they do, is it really credible to suggest that Labour should simply ignore them? If the party’s whole electoral strategy is based on persuading those 300,000 former Labour voters to return to the fold, and the Labour/Greens proposition is going to make that less likely, then what possible motive would Labour have for accepting the Greens’ invitation?

It’s not even as if the Greens have fought Labour to a standstill – as the Alliance had done, repeatedly, by 1998. In May of that year, in the Taranaki-King Country by-election, Matt McCarten’s relentless and highly creative Alliance campaign had split the left vote nearly in half. The Labour candidate polled 17.53 percent and the Alliance candidate 15.46 percent. Clearly, while the rift on the centre left continued, the chances of it winning the 1999 election were slim.

Helen Clark’s acceptance of Jim Anderton’s invitation to the Alliance Conference in August 1998 was not born of Christian charity. The bitter struggle between Labour and the Alliance for control of the centre-left vote had seen support for both parties plummet in the 1996 general election. After the debacle of the Taranaki-King Country by-election, Clark had reluctantly come to the conclusion that since Labour couldn’t beat the Alliance it would have to agree to join them.

David Cunliffe is under no such pressure. Far from forcing Labour to the negotiating table, the Greens are relying upon nothing more than arithmetic to clinch the case for a Red-Green coalition. The Greens’ problem is that arithmetic is telling Labour that Red + Green = not enough.

Even after combining their separate Party Votes, Labour’s and the Greens’ support falls well short of the 48-49 percent required to be confident of winning a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Therefore, in order to become New Zealand’s next prime minister, Cunliffe is going to need the additional support of Winston Peters and NZ First – and if he spends the next five months campaigning for a “Labour/Greens government” that support may not be forthcoming.

The evidence for this is, once again, to be found in the behaviour of Labour’s political rivals.

Winston Peters and his NZ First advisers have been keeping their heads down of late, popping up every now and then only to further reinforce Winston’s claim to be the wise elder statesman of New Zealand – one who carries himself above the petty squabbles of his more callow and shallow colleagues.

All of which suggests that Winston, basing his analysis more upon gut feeling than expensive polling data, has set his sights on the same group of voters that Rob Salmond is targeting – Labour’s defectors of 2011. In the course of his below-the-radar campaigning in the small towns and shrinking cities of provincial New Zealand he would appear to have already formed a picture of the next great wave of NZ First supporters.

They’ll be former Labour voters, in work, but not necessarily on a wage or a salary. Many of them will be independent contractors, tradespersons and small business owners – which is to say highly motivated and strongly aspirational. Most will be 45 years-of-age and up and generationally hostile to the claims of big business, beneficiaries, Maori radicals, feminists, greenies, condescending intellectuals and politically-correct special pleaders. They’ll have a deeply ingrained, largely familial, aversion to the very notion of voting National, regard the Greens as dangerous extremists, and not be at all sure that Cunliffe is the real deal, or that Labour really has escaped the clutches of what one of their heroes, Damian O’Connor, famously identified as trade unionists and a “gaggle of gays”.

Over and over again Winston will have heard these alienated, former Labour voters tell him that: “If only Labour could be Labour – the party my parents voted for all their lives – the party I gave my first vote to back in the 70s – the party of Norman Kirk – the party that used to stand by and for ordinary Kiwis. That Labour I could vote for, but not this Labour.”

And what Winston will discern as he listens to these voters lamenting the loss of their Labour Party is an unstated but increasingly firm intention to vote for NZ First. That’s why the NZ First leader is telling anyone who  will listen that his party’s share of the Party Vote in 2014 will be considerably larger than its 2011 result. He is quietly confident that NZ First will supplant the Greens as the third largest party in Parliament.

Had David Cunliffe accepted the Greens’ invitation to campaign for a “Labour/Green government”, Winston Peter’s confidence would have hardened into certainty. By declining the Greens’ offer, Labour’s plans for reclaiming the support of a good proportion of the 300,000 voters it is targeting remain on track, and the possibility of negotiating effectively with a greatly enlarged NZ First caucus has not been unnecessarily foreclosed. (Wisely, in my opinion, because if the bulk of Winston’s new supporters are former Labour voters, which of the two major parties is he more likely to favour?)

And before the Left begins railing angrily about yet another Labour “betrayal” – consider this.

In 1998 (when the Alliance was pummelling Labour into submission, and Jenny Shipley was driving voters away from the National Party in droves) the New Zealand Study of Values Trust was in the middle of conducting its third survey of the attitudes and values of New Zealanders. One of the questions asked of respondents was: “In political matters, people talk of ‘the left’ and ‘the right’. How would you place your views on this scale, generally speaking?

The Trust had asked New Zealanders the same question in 1989 (after five years of Rogernomics) and, significantly, the most telling result was exactly the same in both instances. Only 3.6 percent of New Zealanders identified themselves as “Left”.

Out of an enrolled voting population in 2011 of 3,070,847 that figure of 3.6 percent represents just 110,350 individuals. (That’s 43,192 fewer voters than the 153,542 voters required to crest the 5 percent MMP threshold.) By no means all of these voters would have cast a ballot, but of those who did the Greens and Mana would undoubtedly have claimed the lion’s share.

By way of comparison, the 1998 survey showed that 44.3 percent of the respondents considered themselves to be in the “Middle” of the Left/Right political spectrum. That figure represents 1,360,385 individual voters.

Only when the number of New Zealanders identifying themselves as “Left” climbs to 1.3 million, will general elections be all about left-wingers’ objectives, attitudes and values. But while the number of Kiwis identifying themselves as “Left” continues to languish well below the 5 percent MMP threshold, general elections will continue to be about everything but.

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. As usual, excellent analysis Chris. And you are spot about Winston. He will have identified the ex labour sub-set you speak of, and the election campaign will see a battle within the larger battle, that being the fight between NZF and Labour for those once-were-Labour voters.

  2. Get real – so all the rhetoric about being red was just that – empty rhetoric. And as for the 800,000 ‘lost tribe’ – well, screw them – just go for the 30,000 swinging voters in the centre. ‘Cos it wouldn’t do to have the political courage to try and transform politics eh Chris? Better to stay in control of the losing side eh? Now where have I read that before?

  3. If we want to redefine where the centre exists on the political spectrum, then we need to increase MANA’s vote over 5% to make it a legitimate party in the eyes of the media.
    At the moment the Greens are extreme left, Labour are centre-left, National are centre-right, and ACT are extreme right (sadly ACT are portrayed as a legitimate party by the media).
    We need to bring MANA into this group so that Labour are viewed as centrist, Greens as Left and MANA as extreme left.
    I have no idea why so many people continue to vote Labour or National under an MMP system. National voters should be voting for ACT, and likewise Labour voters should be voting for MANA, or at least the Greens.
    If you want the ‘centre’ to move to the left, then you vote for the furthermost left party that will make it into government.
    If you want things to continue as they are, then vote for Labour, then punch yourself in your face.

  4. Chris writes:
    “And yet, Labour has clearly made a strategic decision to reject the Greens’ proposition and campaign instead for a “Labour-led government”.”

    “The answer, I believe, is to be found in the voters Labour’s campaign strategists (most particularly the political scientist and polling specialist, Rob Salmond) have identified as the primary target of Labour’s election campaign. These are not the legendary “missing million” who declined to cast a ballot three years ago, but a much more manageable group of around 300,000 men and women who have voted for Labour in the past (2005, 2008) but who, for a whole host of reasons, sat out the General Election of 2011.”

    AND:
    “All of which suggests that Winston, basing his analysis more upon gut feeling than expensive polling data, has set his sights on the same group of voters that Rob Salmond is targeting – Labour’s defectors of 2011.”

    So I take it then, that Chris Trotter thinks that this is after all a sensible decision by Labour’s strategists and “leadership team”.

    Well, let us think about that then. Say Labour wins back those presumed 300,000 voters, who are more “traditional” Labour voters, but not necessarily that “left” in modern day terms. What will happen then, or rather what will happen even before then? The message alone tells us that this signals to Winston that Labour will compete with NZ First for these votes. This must then tell Winston, hey, my chances may not be as good after all. So what will Winston see as necessary to do then?

    Yeah, get out the more chauvinistic, redneck, hard-line slogans, and also play the race card more often again, in order to get more votes from National, and right leaning, conservative voters who may have been disillusioned with ACT and National.

    Will that serve Labour in the end? It will certainly not serve the progressive or “left” cause. It will only further shift the political forces towards the right again.

    I agree that there is only a relative minority of voters that are truly “left”. More may be seen as progressive or social liberal and social democratic, but indeed most voters look primarily at what parties and candidates offer them to benefit materially, that is them personally, their social group or the class they belong to.

    Then we are back to the fight over the centre ground.

    All this will do is to leave the left potential by the roadside again. While votes will be won on the right, there will be more Labour votes going to the Greens also, likely to bring them to 15 or more percent.

    And with all these “strategies”, which are about the established voters and the once established voters, the younger, disillusioned voters are left by the wayside. The same applies for people as working poor and especially those on benefits, making up a few hundred thousand also.

    I am increasingly getting SICK of all these calculations, strategies and schemes by Labour and also other parties. Should elections not be about voting for what people tend to believe in, what they can identify with, about policies that convince and get supported? Should elections not be about competing on common sense ideas, plans and policies, on smart and informed debate and discussions, that hammer out a plan for a better future?

    It seems not, as we have a focus on seats, on coat-tailing, on speculations who the non voters are, who may vote for what party if, what and when and what else may be done and happens.

    No, I am starting to think that I may not bother myself and rather consider migrating, like so many others have already. This is becoming too damned depressing to me, and I see a “spiritually dead” political environment in this country.

    Get back to your senses, please, and vote for what is right for you, and motivate others to do some thinking and also do the same. All else is getting a bit too perverted, I feel.

  5. So we have rule by demographers.

    The difficulty is that it is passive – it takes estimates as established fact – and abandons leadership.

    So the pollsters think Labour needs another 5% – traditionally the response would be to campaign vigorously on policy. But now instead Labour will backslide in the hope that the backsliding will appeal to a sceptical centrist block.

    Time for MPs to resign in favour of direct democracy then, because they have ceased to lead.

    And in the meantime the unspeakable vermin in power will steal our country blind.

    We can always rely on you Chris, for the counsel of despair.

  6. A formal alliance before the election, if at all desirable, can only be considered if the current polls suggest the two parties have pretty close proximity in party vote figures such as 20 to 30 (or 25 to 35). At the moment that is not indicated as it is around 33 Lab to 11 Greens.

    It is also possible that NZF may win around 7 to 10% and Mana.Dom alliance, if it goes ahead, around 5% This complicates pre election alliances between Labour and Greens as the alliance will favour the Greens far in excess to Labour and hamper post election coalition negations with other parties if needed.

    Since there is very little realistic chance of the Greens winning an electoral seat, it would make more sense if the Green voters who constitute about 11% of voters, vote for the Labour candidates and give their party vote to the Greens. Greens voting for their own candidates will be a wasted vote for practical purposes.

    In the case of the Labour voters, it will be sensible for them to give both votes to Labour : Candidate and party, in order to ensure Labour has sufficient MPs in case there are some (or many) electorate candidate defeats by stronger National candidates.

    I think that if the strategy I have suggested above is not followed, it will be harder to form a Labour led left government that many of us in the left block want and we may actually end up with a National led government that will wreck with no holds barred havoc with the country for the primary benefit of the wealthy and the corporates.

  7. As to whether Labour and the Greens should campaign together or separately, I am agnostic. There is a case for and a case against, and it is quite possible that the case against is stronger.

    But the reasons you suggest for Labour’s rejection of the idea make my blood boil, and I hope you are mistaken. For almost six years now Labour has purported to court the centrist swinging voter, while angering the party membership and alienating those voters who are desperate for real change. To begin with, someone’s saying they are a centrist doesn’t say much, since it does not tell us where they think the centre lies. But let us assume that the LP membership have at least some sensibilities in common with potential Labour voters, and remember that Shane Jones, flag-bearer for Mr Centrist, was the least favoured candidate. Let us also remember that Damien O’Connor is a very good electorate MP who knows the coast well and actually tries to represent it – he is not a mere PR construct. And let us not forget either that the membership was won over by the promise of real change – not more status quo management.

    I applaud David Cunliffe’s stated intention to rebuild the local economy. But I also know that there is a growing group of people who are treated more like the victims of an occupied country than like citizens. If Labour really has decided that it would be prudent to abandon these people, then they are the same time abandoning their moral core. And even on a prudential level, the Nats are not so squeamish about attending to the less well-off communities, and are currently courting the ministers in South Auckland. If they get these ministers on side, they no doubt figure, they will in turn persuade their downtrodden parishes to vote against their interests, just like in the US. Labour simply cannot take it for granted that they will either vote left or not vote at all.

    And while I am on my soapbox, do not forget that Norm Kirk brought in the DPB. In those days people were usually only on it for a couple of years, because they tended to marry. And they tended to marry because the infrastructure of jobs and houses upon which lives were planned had yet to be scuttled. Kirk did not share the contempt for the poor that you think partly characterises these nostalgic centrists.

    All that said, even if Labour equivocates all the way to the election, I will be doing what I can to get these abandoned people to vote. A bigger left block, however it is made up, will hopefully bring a few more forthright voices to the table.

  8. Sadly in the National Party’s smear and misinformation campaign there has been what amounts to a clearly defined strategy in the past 2 years to portray the Green Party as crazed lunatics, bit along the lines of David Cunliffe being tricky or Elvis being seen windsurfing in Dunedin. Say enough times and it must be true I guess is the hope.

    You see this pop up with nearly every comments sections, the standard “well Labour might be barely tolerable but with the Greens alongside they can’t be trusted, total madness will reign”, you know the routine baseless claim. And National know if they succeed in scaring the horses with this manure it stops them being tossed out.

    And yet as has been said many times the Greens ain’t into polygamy or incest or privatising roads or even assaulting little kids like some “sensible” parties of Nationals liking but hey who cares because apparently according to National they’re still crazy.

  9. “If only Labour could be Labour – the party my parents voted for all their lives – the party I gave my first vote to back in the 70s – the party of Norman Kirk – the party that used to stand by and for ordinary Kiwis. That Labour I could vote for, but not this Labour.”

    If you think that the people described above, who clearly want a more left-leaning Labour Party would rather see Labour side up to NZ First, rather than Mana (did you even mention them?), I think that your understanding, and that of Labour’s “gurus” is quite wrong.

    Marc was spot on re winning with one hand, and losing with the other.

    Of course most people don’t like being called “left wing”…to a lot of people (not me), it has too many negative connotations. I will balance this by suggesting that just as many people would have a problem with being called “right wing” !

    Do not confuse this with an an aversion to left wing policies…if Labour arent getting the message, let me reiterate it…

    We don’t want wishy washy centrist middle of the road neo lib same-old, same-old, much of the same, National Lite.

    IS ANYONE LISTENING, FFS ? !!

  10. The Trust had asked New Zealanders the same question in 1989 (after five years of Rogernomics) and, significantly, the most telling result was exactly the same in both instances. Only 3.6 percent of New Zealanders identified themselves as “Left”.

    Whilst there may be an element of reality to that statement, Chris (and the success with which National continues to demonise beneficiaries on a regular basis might seem to confirm the NZ psyche as being more rightwing than we’d like to think), these are the same New Zealanders who still demand free hospitals and a free (if in name only) education system. And who want tax-payer funded superannuation (a UBI for 65+).

    Yet schizophrenically, these same New Zealanders are comfortable voting for tax cuts and a right wing government that will deliver that extra cash into their pockets even if that money had to be borrowed from off-shore (and eventually repaid).

    But that’s an oversimplification. There is no such thing as “these same New Zealanders”. National’s core support is around a third of the voting population, and Labour’s a litttle less. The rest are “swing” voters who vote according to the times we live in.

    For example, in times of good economic growth, those swing voters elect a left wing government to invest in good social infra-structure, as well as manage the economy.

    In tough economic times those swing voters elect a right wing government who, they perceive (rightly or wrongly) are better “managers” in tough times needing fiscal restraint. A good social infra-structure comes secondary – hence why bene-bashing is socially acceptable these days in the media and middle class society.

    It’s all perception, of course, as very few people in their right mind (with some notable misguided examples of partisan nutcases) thing it is “fiscally prudent” to pay for a tax cut by borrowing overseas. And yet that is what National did in ’09 and ’10.

    Perhaps, thinking allowed, Labour should take this onboard; welcome the resurgent economy; and announce a focus of strengthening our social infra-structure. (Which would also lead to more jobs.)

    As for the rest of your analysis, Chris. It may be sound. There’s probably a truckload of truth to it, god help us.

    But the cynicism involved is so depressing that it serves only to disengage more people from voting.

    What happened to the more uplifting, positive, aspirational concept of a broad coalition of parties working together for the betterment of the country? Christ, maybe I’m too f*****g naive for this game after all…

    To me, the most inspirational political actions recently was the Labour-Green announcement on the NZ Power policy, or Labour, Greens, NZ First, and Mana, working together on an unofficial inquiry on exporting and manufacturing (http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/political/126654/exporters-tell-inquiry-of-threat-from-high-dollar).

    If voters can see opposition parties working together like those two examples, they can understand what a new government might conceivably look like. Even media cynicism mightn’t be able to undermine such a vision of unity.

    Ok, so I’m a voter…

    Maybe more leftist than the mainstream society… (Though my views were pretty mainstream back in the 1970s…)

    What inspires me?

    Political parties battling it out; attempting to discredit each other’s idea? Crushing the spirit out of new ideas?

    Is that uplifting?

    Is that inspirational?

    Does it want to engage me?

    Or is it simply carrying the Parliamentary bitch-session from the debating chamber out into the public arena, where even more people are “turned of by it all”?

    ‘Cos it sure as hell doesn’t inspire me to go out and slog my guts out, delivering leaflets; door-knocking; etc, in cold and wet, for a new government, whilst opposition parties are metaphorically slaughtering each other…

    But I probably will, anyway. Because the alternative is even more depressing.

    • Totally agree with you sentiments here Frank. Especially when you say:
      “What happened to the more uplifting, positive, aspirational concept of a broad coalition of parties working together for the betterment of the country? Christ, maybe I’m too f*****g naive for this game after all… ”

      I’m an anarchist, a radical democrat, and like both Russel Brand and the socialist wing of Mana, I don’t think the changes we truly need can be achieved through the parliamentary system. But let’s not, as too many revolutionists do, confuse goals and tactics.

      The evidence is all around us that when parliament is controlled by one power bloc (Labour in the 80s, or National now), it’s much easier for the 1% to use the state as a tool of oppression (eg bene-bashing, prohibition) and wealth concentration (eg privatization of public resources). In this situation, revolutionary strategy requires tactics to break this monopoly on state power, and since revolutionaries are a radical fringe in this country, such tactics require us to cooperate with other social movements.

      In the history Chris alludes to above, supporting the Alliance (and the Greens) was a tactic to keep the 1999-2008 Labour government from having the same unbridled power National has today. True, Clark’s government didn’t deliver the radical changes many of us would have liked, like drug law reform, and we must never forget that Clark oversaw Operation 8. But I can’t deny that life was more livable as a beneficiary under Clark compared what it was like under Bolger/ Shipley, or what it’s been like under Key. That matters.

      We all have our reasons for wanting National out, and in the absence of broad support for replacing the constitutional monarchy with a more democratic political and economic system for Aotearoa, the only alternative to Key is Cunliffe and friends. Despite the fact that such a change of figurehead will not fix all the country’s problems, it could at least stop parliament being used to make them any worse. So, like Frank, I will be doing what I can to help make this change happen, “because the alternative is even more depressing”.

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