Vacuum to fill in Labour camp

CHRIS TROTTER
Last updated 08:27 05/04/2011

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Nature abhors a vacuum - and so does politics. With Labour's front bench and the party's ruling council both declining to deal decisively with Phil Goff's inadequate political leadership, Left-leaning voters have been given a powerful incentive to look elsewhere for progressive representation this November.

Not since the early 1990s has Labour provided its competitors with such a huge opportunity to enlarge their electoral support base.

Twenty years ago tens of thousands of Left-leaning voters deserted Labour for Jim Anderton's Alliance and Winston Peters' NZ First parties. And who could blame them? With unrepentant Rogernome, Mike Moore, at Labour's helm; and the betrayals of the Rogernomics era still very bitter in their mouths?

That mass disillusionment with Labour produced some spectacular electoral outcomes. In 1993, for example, the combined support of the two "insurgent" parties reached 26.4 per cent - just 8 percentage points behind Labour's tally.

It wasn't until August 1998 that Labour was finally persuaded to make the necessary political and policy adjustments to return to office. And they did not do it alone. In order to become prime minister Helen Clark had first to make her peace with Jim Anderton and the Alliance.

I reiterate this recent political history only because Phil Goff and his colleagues appear to have forgotten it. That government, under New Zealand's proportional system, is a shared responsibility - involving not just one, but several political parties.

Labour will not receive sufficient votes in the forthcoming general election to govern alone. Before it can take office it will require, at the very least, the support of the Greens and quite possibly the votes of a successful NZ First Party as well.

So long as Labour demonstrates both an appetite for power and the means to attain it, a solid majority of Left-leaning voters will remain in its camp. In such circumstances, Labour's potential allies, the Greens and NZ First, must be content to trawl for votes at the political margins - scrabbling for the 10-15 per cent of the electorate whose electoral needs Labour cannot, or will not, meet.

But the events of the past fortnight suggest that Labour possesses neither the appetite nor the means for winning power. On the contrary, its caucus and council appear quite blind to their party's growing leadership deficit. With electoral defeat now regarded as inevitable, the No 1 priority of Labour's front bench is how to emerge from the post-election bloodletting at the head of the pack.

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This growing leadership deficit recalls the fatal ideological deficit which plagued the Labour Party throughout the 1990s. Impervious to both internal and external criticism, Labour then, and now, somehow convinces itself that a decision to abandon its core constituency to the lash of neoliberal extremism carries with it no serious electoral consequences.

But if Labour's front bench, trapped inside the opaque bubble of its own ambition, believes that defaulting the 2011 general election will do no lasting damage to its electoral fortunes, then it seriously misjudges the moral temper of its Left-leaning supporters.

A healthy Labour Party generally attracts four-fifths of the Left's support, or around 40 per cent of the party vote, leaving its ideological allies to squabble and fight over the remaining fifth. But a Labour Party so self-absorbed it's ready to abandon tens of thousands of its core supporters to the "discipline" of the marketplace must expect its share of the party vote to fall below 35 per cent. (In 1996 it fell to just 28 per cent.)

This is mostly because disgruntled Left-leaning voters will attempt to offset Labour's self-inflicted weakness by strengthening the hands of its potential coalition partners. But even conservative voters may toss a vote the insurgent parties' way if they feel the National Party lacks effective opposition.

If, over the next seven months, the Greens and NZ First are able to present coherent, practical alternatives to the Left- leaning half of the New Zealand electorate, I'm convinced Labour's share of the party vote will plummet. Increasingly the election will become a contest between a nascent coalition of parties offering a radical Left alternative to the Government's bleak neoliberal austerity, and a National Party hell-bent on securing 50 per cent plus one of the party vote.

This will not be a healthy development.

A country dominated electorally by two large and reassuringly pragmatic political parties can anticipate a high degree of ideological, economic and social stability. A country which finds itself locked in an all-or-nothing struggle between two intensely antagonistic ideological blocs should expect none of these things.

This is the true measure of Labour's failure as an Opposition. It has encouraged the most extreme elements in the National Party and Government to believe they can pursue their radical economic and social agendas without fear of adverse electoral consequences.

There is no law of nature - or politics - which requires a vacuum to be filled by pleasant things.

- The Press

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