Photo by JOHN MILLER
KEITH RANKIN IS WRONG about Jacinda needing to lose this election. If that’s what happens on Saturday: if National somehow hauls itself back onto the Treasury Benches; then it is the purest folly to suppose that the election of 2020 will be a Labour walkover. If the Centre-Left cannot win in 2017, then the question that begs to be answered is: “Can it win at all?”
Presumably, Keith is being guided by the historical precedent of the 1969 “nearly-but-not-quite” election; That was the election which Labour lost by 14,000 votes, only to be swept into office three years later in the “It’s time!” election of 1972. Or, perhaps he’s thinking of the “Springbok Tour Election” of 1981, when National secured a two-seat majority in spite of receiving 4,122 fewer votes than the Labour Party nationwide. As happened in 1969, Labour’s narrow defeat was followed by a unambiguous victory three years later in the watershed snap-election of 1984.
If these are the precedents that Keith has in mind, then they deserve closer scrutiny. Especially since Keith’s reason for identifying the 2017 election as the one Jacinda needs to lose is that, in his opinion: “there will be a financial crisis next year … [which Labour] … is ill-equipped to handle … Further, it may take a major financial crisis (with Labour in Opposition) to drag Labour into the present century, just as the 1930s’ crisis belatedly dragged Labour into the twentieth century.”
Leaving aside the fact that Labour was very much a twentieth century political party (founded in 1916) and, therefore, in no need of being dragged anywhere; its failure to win the 1931 general election after close to three years of the most calamitous economic depression in modern history is highly instructive. Certainly, Labour expected to win and was deeply demoralised by the right-wing United-Reform Coalition’s electoral success.
Now, if we follow Keith’s thesis, Labour’s 1931 defeat merely presaged its inevitable victory of 1935. Except that Labour’s 1935 win was more a matter of good luck than good management. In fact, had the New Zealand Right not fallen into bitter factional strife over the best way to deal with the Great Depression, then there is absolutely no guarantee that Labour would have won. Certainly, if the country had had a proportional electoral system (as it does today) then the Centre-Left’s total of 46.5 percent may not have been enough.
Significant, also, in terms of Keith’s thesis, is the fact that, by 1935, the worst years of the Great Depression were over. The nadir had been reached in 1932, when widespread rioting had broken out in all of New Zealand’s major cities. Over the course of the next three years, however, the rapid spiral into misery and hopelessness had slowed. Although, it must be said, things were still very bad, and working-class hatred for the Coalition Government was palpable. Even so, the chance was there in 1935. Had the Right been united, and led by the moderate former prime-minister, Gordon Coates, Labour could have been run very close – and maybe even defeated.
Certainly, the sharp economic downturn of 1967-68 was insufficient to unseat the National Government of Keith Holyoake in 1969. What’s more, by late November 1972, the New Zealand economy was going gang-busters. There was over-full employment, wages were rising ahead of inflation, and the NZ Dollar was worth more than the US Dollar! And yet, in spite of all this good economic news, the electorate turfed-out Jack Marshall’s National Government with nary a backward glance.
Likewise, in 1984. The loud criticisms of his ideological foes in the finance sector and news media notwithstanding, Rob Muldoon’s two-year Wage & Price Freeze had brought inflation down to low single figures, and his Think Big projects in the regions had kept the unemployment rate well below 10 percent. Most impressive of all, however, was the stunning recovery in per capita GDP growth, which, at close to 6 percent, was an astonishing 8 percentage points higher than the recessionary -2 percent recorded the previous year. Not bad for a Polish shipyard!
None of these figures did Muldoon much good at the ballot-box in 1984, however. Attacked from the right by Bob Jones’s New Zealand Party, and from the left (or so we thought!) by David Lange’s Labour Party, National’s vote fell from 38.8 to 35.8 percent. (A surprisingly modest drop – all things considered!) Labour itself, lifted its vote from 39.0 to 42.9 percent. Another modest result – and well below the 48.4 percent share of the popular vote Labour had attracted in 1972 – the last time it won a general election.
The lesson to be drawn from these historical examples is that misery, alone, is insufficient to propel a left-wing party into power. If it was, then Labour would most certainly have been elected in 1931. Nor is economic success the key determinant of electoral outcomes. If it were, then Muldoon, like Holyoake in 1969, should have been able to fend off Lange’s challenge in 1984. [And, before anybody objects that New Zealand faced an economic crisis in 1984, I would remind them that the run on the $NZ was deliberately engineered by Roger Douglas, who “accidentally” left a position paper indicating Labour’s intention to order a devaluation of 20 percent if it won the election, lying on his chair for journalists to find at an election meeting in Auckland. – C.T.] Clearly, Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential Campaign Team’s oft-quoted quip: “It’s the economy, stupid!”, isn’t always true.
What is true, I think, is that elections are won when the electorate’s general preference for prosperity and stability is overwhelmed by its desire to turn the page and begin something new. When simply restoring the same old faces to the same old places no longer seems enough. When obtaining justice for past wrongs; and securing for themselves, and for their children, a different and better future; calls forth from the nation’s voters an unaccustomed measure of courage and daring.
The trick, of course, is to prevent that courage and daring from fading away. In this respect, it is not the general election of 1935 that changed New Zealand history, but the 1938 election which followed it. In the three years that separated that first Labour victory from the second, the government of Michael Joseph Savage had laid the groundwork for a genuine transformation of New Zealand society. Effectively, he was saying to the New Zealand people: “Three years is not enough to complete the task we have begun on your behalf. Give us your votes so we can finish the job.”
And that’s exactly what the people of New Zealand did. At an astonishing 55.8 percent, Labour’s share of the popular vote was the highest ever recorded at a New Zealand general election.
What I would say to Keith, therefore, is that Jacinda cannot afford to lose in 2017 – any more than Mickey Savage could afford to lose in 1935. The groundwork, for a fairer, smarter and environmentally sustainable New Zealand in the twenty-first century, needs to be laid over the course of the next three years, so that the true, the irreversible, transformation can take place in the years following the 2020 election. Just as there could have been no 1938 without 1935, there will be no 2020 without 2017.
We have to do this NOW.