The Centre Swings: Policies to Win 2002

Listener 15 January, 2000.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

While there appeared to be a big swing to the left in the 1999 election, the actual swing was only a little more than 2 percentage points. But the parties in the political centre between Labour and National, which won about 19 percent of the vote in 1996, won only 9 percent in 1999. The change of government reflects a massive shift of votes from these centre parties, notably New Zealand First, to Labour. The voters have got their desire 1996 election outcome, thwarted by the New Zealand First-National coalition, of a Labour-led government. But instead of it being pulled towards the centre by New Zealand First, the 1999 government is more pulled to the left by its Alliance and Green wings.

So Labour faces the same dilemma as National in its last two years of office. The internal political pressure are towards its flank, the external ones are towards its centre. The failure of National to pick up the centre vote in 1999 is a salutary warning for Labour. It is easy for a governing party to think it now has a mandate to do whatever it likes, although there are more parliamentary checks on this absolutism than when Labour’s Roger Douglas and National’s Ruth Richardson got carried away with their own self-importance. Under MMP, Helen Clark and Jim Anderton know that winning the 2002 election means responding to the political centre. The gains from a small political swing are minor compared to the fifth of voters in the centre for the taking. The voters which marched into their camp in 1999 could as easily march out in 2002.

Some issues which concern that centre do not belong to this column. (We will be intrigued watching the new government’s social liberals responding to the signal from the law and order referendum. The question may have been confused, but the public response is clear enough.) Other 1999 issues, such as cannabis decriminalisation, may be resolved by the next election, and will be soon forgotten. Voters do not seem retrospectfully grateful, so much as prospectively demanding. The same applies for other changes the government may make. Nationbuilding and cultural renaissance may be valued, as may a more effective and larger public sector delivering services in education, the environment, health, justice, leisure and welfare (together with the ending of the mania for privatisation). But they are only electorally significant if the government can convince the voters that the opposition has no similar commitment.

The centre can live with – indeed welcome – the likely change in the direction of economic policy. But the failures of the last two decades will not be overcome in a triennium. (Neither can 160 years of Maori policy. The Maori MPs need to set achievable goals for 2002 – and over-achieve them.) There should be some economic benefits but increased difficulties at funding the external deficit (say, if the US share market crashes) is likely to obscure any gains. (As Treasurer I’d have a team of officials examining this scenario, devising measures to reduce its inevitable impact.)

An issue this column will have to address is trade policy. The “free trade” versus “fair trade” debate involves meaningless four-letter words, but is no less the fierce for them. Fudging may enable the government to tie the political centre into the left, but could also cause policy snarls. (One possibility for success of a centre-left government is that the political right could tear itself apart on an issue such as trade policy, just as the British Conservatives are doing over the European Union, and the Tories did on the Irish Question. But if it is easy for a government to fudge an issue, it is easier for the loyal opposition.)

Another issue will be “equity”, or “fairness”, or “social justice” (“social exclusion” is the Third Way label). This goal has been ignored for fifteen years, superseded by a sole focus on efficiency. Equity is an extremely complex and subtle concept (in contrast to efficiency), open to a number of confusing interpretations (the most common popular one being “support my needy clients, and to hell with everyone else”). There is almost no capacity among official advisers to provide a rigorous account of the notion and incorporate it systematically into policy. Yet that is what voters want.

Arguably the Greens are best placed for the 2002 election, for their seven MPs may be able to sell the public a coherent green vision. But Act failed a similar opportunity in 1996. Moreover it is easy – as we shall see for beech logging, genetically modified organisms, and cannabis – for other parties to takeover many of their policies, if not the Greens’ spirit.

Should the centre-left be pessimistic about its prospects in 2002? But equally so could be the centre-right, except it expects the political centre to drift back to it, as the government makes mistakes and become disliked by the populace. Well, yes. That seems to be the explanation for the outcome of the 1999 election. My conclusion is that the centre-left cannot drift to another win (if the right behaves itself). It needs to think how it will keep the centre loyal.