Strange Benchmates

Why does the Left hang together and the Right hang separately?
Listener 29 November, 2003.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Despite it being 10 years since a referendum committed New Zealand to MMP, many commentators still think in terms of the old winner-takes-all (WTA) regime. They suggested that voters were illogical because in last year’s election Labour won more of the list vote in many National-won seats. But seats are still won on a WTA basis, so the shrewd elector –– apparently smarter than many commentators –– gave their electorate vote to the least objectionable front-runner. So those who were anti-Labour tended to vote National.

However, when they came to their list vote, knowing that almost every vote would contribute to Parliament’s composition, the Right split their vote among Act, National, New Zealand First and United Future (although, as I shall explain, the latter voters had even more complicated strategic objectives).

Yes, there is still a strong left-right dimension in New Zealand politics. Those who say there is not haven’t been paying attention to the electorate. (Those who think they know exactly what the dimension means haven’t being paying attention, either.) But the intriguing implication of last year’s election was that voters are willing to compromise their left-right politics for political stability. This may explain why National is doing so badly in the polls. While Labour continues to hold a commanding 40 plus percent of voters, National dithers in the 20s.

The voters’ biggest objection to MMP was that it would result in weak minority and coalition governments. That was also the regime’s strength, for governments could not ignore the voters’ wishes by imposing unpopular policies without consultation. (The argument detailed in my book The Whimpering of the State also points out that imposition without consultation results in poor-quality policy because there are fewer mechanisms to identify and correct mistakes.)

Perhaps Helen Clark’s most impressive political achievement has been to provide strong government, even though she has only a minority in Parliament. Fairness adds that so did Jim Bolger after 1993, although he was toppled in 1998, in part because of his success, for the desire of his party was to pursue more vigorous, less consultative, policies. The following Jenny Shipley government moved sharply to the right. Labour filled the vacuum in the centre. When Shipley tried to move the party back into the Bolger location, she found the space taken.

Labour further seized the initiative, with its 1999 pact with the Alliance, which offered the prospect of a stable coalition. It delivered, fortunately for parliamentary democracy, although in 2002 most of the Alliance walked out. This left the electorate with the dilemma –– which it has every election –– of how to obtain stable consultative government. The indications are that it wanted a return of a Labour-led centrist government, but it did not want it over-dependent on the Greens. The resolution was that a chunk of the Right voted for a centre-right party, United Future, which gave Labour the desired stable mandate, constrained by a consultation process with two flank parties (United Future and the Greens) and, by implication, all of us. (Such WTA attitudes prevail, Opposition parties still present themselves as uncritically opposing government policies, ignoring the opportunities MMP presents of influencing policy outcomes, and giving the impression that the Opposition is capable of consultative government.)

The result is that the Left have tended to vote together, because by doing so they command government, albeit they are constrained to an incrementalist centre-left policy rather than the radical-left policies many would prefer. However, Right voters have split into the four separate parties, which collectively command the allegiance of 40 plus percent of the vote.

The implication is that National will not get back to its 40 plus percent of the postwar era, and it may struggle for a sustainable 30 plus percent. It is even possible that another party will replace it as the lead party of the Right. (Certainly, Winston Peters has that ambition.) To win power, National has to convince the voters that it can form a coalition government with the radical-right Act, the populist New Zealand First and the Christian-based United Future. (Political ambition generates strange benchmates.)

When it does –– given the current leadership of the four parties, this may be some time in the future –– and Labour goes into Opposition, we are likely to see the Left splinter in the same way as the Right already has. Never let it be said that the New Zealand Left is less divided, less confused and less fractious than we currently see of the Right.

This column benefited from a draft of Voters’ Veto: The 2002 election in New Zealand and the consolidation of minority government (edited by Jack Vowles, Peter Aimer, Susan Banducci, Jeffrey Karp & Raymond Miller), to be published by AUP in February 2004.