Labour failing to learn the political positioning lessons from the 1996 and 2002 elections



In 1996 I threw myself into the Alliance election campaign as one of its electorate candidates. When I began door-knocking, four months out from polling day, there was a good buzz about the prospects of a Labour/Alliance electoral victory.

The Alliance and Labour had been at odds, but people had confidence they could work together and put together a coalition after the election. Then Alliance leader Jim Anderton put the cat among the pigeons by insisting that a coalition platform be decided before the election, saying that if this didn’t happen there wouldn’t be a coalition after the election. Anderton’s stance didn’t go down well with the left-of-centre voters. It was impractical because it’s not possible for any two parties to hammer out a detailed coalition government agreement before they know the election result and how many MPs they each party has.

Jim Anderton’s silly ultimatum to Labour made it tougher for Alliance candidates like me. I found it had eroded people’s confidence that Labour and the Alliance could put together a harmonious and workable government. On election day the Alliance took the biggest hit, its vote dropping to 10%. National stayed in power after it stitched together a coalition with New Zealand First.

The parallel between 1996 with 2014 is this. Again we have to two left-of-centre parties (now Labour and the Greens) both with sufficient strength that neither can be left out of a progressive coalition government. Left-of-centre voters talk hopefully about a “Labour/Green government”. But now one of the two big left parties (this time Labour) is putting doubt in people’s minds that such a government will work. Don’t talk about a “Labour/Green government” David Cunliffe says, talk about a “Labour-led government”. We are looking at a repeat of 1996 error, but this time it is Labour that’s responsible. I’m sure that it will be the Labour vote that will take the biggest hit, because most left-of-centre voters won’t agree with Labour backing off a “Labour/Green government”.

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Here’s a good test of whether Labour should be talking about a “Labour-led government” rather than a “Labour/Green government.” How many of your friends, family or work-mates tell you they are looking forward to a “Labour-led government”? Or do they talk instead about a “Labour/Green government”? To most Kiwis leadership is something you prove in practice, not something you declare. With two big parties like Labour and the Greens we can judge day by day which party is leading in practice, and on which issues. On some issues it might be Labour, and on others the Greens.

We can also learn from the damaging rift between Labour and the Greens in the 2002 election. Early in 2002 the seven Green MPs staged a walkout from the parliamentary chamber over the Labour government’s soft line on genetically engineered organisms. I was part of that walkout and experienced the initial wave of support for our strong, principled stand. But as the election approached what I feared came to pass, that the Greens position of not supporting a government which released GE organisms into the environment, when combined with Labour’s hostility towards the Greens, was undermining people’s confidence that the two parties could work together after the election. As polling day approached both parties dropped in the polls, with the Greens down to 7% on the day.

In 1996 and 2002 the people’s perception of how well the two main left-of-centre parties could work together was a big factor in their subsequent electoral fortunes.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of earlier years. Let’s talk positively about prospects for a Labour/Green government, or if you like a Labour/Green/Mana government, or even a Labour/Green/Mana/Internet Party government. Please also note that none of these government slogans exclude NZ First participation. However, NZ First is in a different category because it will be playing off the left parties against National/ACT in any coalition negotiations if it holds the balance of power.


    • Yeah – that’s a sure way to get Labour to pay attention, bring up the spectre of the 2002 Election when Labour … oh wait..

      This was nothing more than a media stunt by the Greens, to avoid Labour/Green swing voters going back to Labour. It’s not Labour that should get the finger pointed at them for failing to learn the political positioning lessons Keith talks about.

  1. I want a Green led government.

    Bugger the first-past-the-post dinosaurs. Both of them depend on the same unsustainable economy that is the root of all our problems.

    • So we should just rumble and grind each other into the ground while Key stays in power? That’s the tactical genius of the Greens at work is it? So that would be all out war between Greens, Labour and MANA?

        • No, it’s the nasty bitter spitefulness of some of their wellington staffers I don’t tend to like Disraeli, I have been a vocal supporter of their policies and MPs and believe the Greens have real answers to the problems we face. Your petty question seems to avoid that reality Disraeli

          • I only ask because your coverage of them this last week has been scathing. You’ve been talking about their “tantrum” and when people (including Frank Macskasy) brought up that no one can see a sign of a tantrum, you have not replied.

            • and your response to that was that they had stolen my lunch money? Perhaps I may have heard things you have not Disraeli, like at the MANA AGM you weren’t at yet seem to speak with such authority on.

      • Martyn,
        I said that I want a Green led government because both Labour and National depend on the same unsustainable economy that is the root of all our problems. It was not the first time I said this, including on this site. I have been saying this for 40+ years.

        “So we should just rumble and grind each other into the ground while Key stays in power?” – You are the one practicing it, and in a quite impertinent and divisive manner in my view.

        “That’s the tactical genius of the Greens at work is it?” In the context of my argument, yes, that could be a fair statement.

        • Oh I see, it’s all my fault. Thank you for clearing that up. While the Left bickers Key smiles. By the time a Green led Government will occur, the ice caps will have already melted.

          • “By the time a Green led Government will occur, the ice caps will have already melted.”

            That is just about supporting my argument for a Green led Government NOW!

      • I do think the Greens should have gone about it differently. It seems to me that they did what you say Anderton did Keith.

        • Yes, I also think this is fair comment. However, I think Anderton was a person who had solid principles, a bit too solid perhaps and his insistance on transparency and baring your soul for scrutiny actually worked against all the parties in the end. I think he did the wrong thing for the right reason.

  2. The Greens (and also probably Labour’s) problem is one being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Let’s face it, whether a Labour/Greens coaliton is “Labour-led” or not is just wasting time sweating on the small stuff. This is urgent guys! don’t waste time and energy worrying about the small print, work together now and worry about technicalities when or if you win the election. I am quite sure that there won’t be the kind of political grandstanding that Winston Peters subjected the nation to in 1996. You are all better than that, now go and prove it!

    • Well said, Lefty, let’s concentrate on compiling as many Labour, Green and MANA votes as we can and work out the power sharing later.

  3. … But now one of the two big left parties (this time Labour) is putting doubt in people’s minds that such a government will work.” Don’t talk about a “Labour/Green government” David Cunliffe says, talk about a “Labour-led government”.
    …I agree with Keith, …I could not believe Cunlliffe came out with this statement… WTF!… I am sure ,from this statement, that we will loose more crucial votes from people wanting the greens in, than from any the ‘center righters’ think we might gain from so called ‘anti green’ West Coasters.
    .. I despair more, as each week goes by.

  4. Another stuff up by Labour, when what is needed is a clear alterative government in the wings, if National is to be defeated.

    Too many Labour MPs still living in an MMP world of the (treacherous) 4th Labour government.

    And we are supposed to excited with the vision of a Labour led government. I think not.

    On the other hand knowing that there can be a Labour-Green government is an incentive to vote.

  5. The only reason I can see for wanting any sort of Labour government is that it may open space for some of the Green and Mana policies that we need so badly. I haven’t got enough teeth left to keep getting them kicked in for no good reason.

  6. Labour haven’t felt enough pain yet. Take another caning at the upcoming election and then they might change.

    Best sign on the horizon is the unlikely union of two mavericks. If they can make it work, and I hope they do, this could be a whole new future.

    • Why does the left need to work together anyway? Surely there is enough choice on the left of the political spectrum (Hard left, Eco left, Soft core left) that people who wish to support a party with leftist leanings can pick one that satisfies their particular preference. Mana and the Greens can vacuum up all these dissatisfied hard left wing voters and the left block will get well over 50% and you will be away laughing as there will be no need for NZ First to get involved. Unless of course you don’t really believe the left has the ability to get over 50% of the vote.

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