By Frank Noakes
AUCKLAND — The Alliance, a coalition of progressive parties, faces the conservative parties in the November 6 New Zealand general election confident that it has already forced the debate away from the extreme free market agenda, at least for the duration of the election campaign.
Monetarism, known as "Rogernomics" here, has been practised by both major parties over the past nine years. In that time unemployment first doubled under Labour and then rose a further 30% under the Nationals to reach 300,000. The country's economic decline is matched only by its social crisis.
"We've changed the debate by being a threat. I think the Alliance has been an organisational expression for dissatisfaction with the current system. Labour and National have been bought; certainly it became clear last year that you can't tell the difference between them. What we're giving is a clear alternative, and that's accepted even by the right-wing media", Matt McCarten, national campaign manager for the Alliance, told Green Left Weekly.
"In regards to the elections themselves and the result, the left has got to see that politics is not about the electoral arena only. It's important, but we have to say 'how do we use elections to promote the sort of ideas that we want to unite around?'"
McCarten says that the elections should be used to build an organisation for the future.
When asked in opinion polls which party would best govern the country, most people respond with either Labour or National. McCarten believes this is because voters consider one of these two as being the likely governing party, rather than it being a measure of confidence in either of them. McCarten points to Alliance leader Jim Anderton's unrivalled individual popularity to back up his claim. On the question "Who do you respect and believe in politics?", Anderton regularly tops the poll.
"The other seats are going to be hard, no question. I mean, what we're trying to do is win a country." People must have their feet on the ground: the Alliance has existed only for 18 months, McCarten stresses. "You've got to earn the support and the loyalty from working-class people."
Although the Alliance did particularly well in the local government elections in New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, it might take years to build up the necessary level of support to win government. McCarten says the Labour Party has existed a very long time, and this has meant that even though it has betrayed its supporters, many have stayed loyal.
"So Jim will win and we may get a number of others, but the electorate is so volatile you don't know where the votes are going; in the key electorates up to 40% of people are still undecided."
The Alliance doesn't attract the institutional support and financial backing that accrues to the two conservative parties; its strength and their weakness is the people on the ground — around 16,000 of them, McCarten estimates. The Alliance makes its money from leaving small cardboard money boxes in working-class homes and through community housie (bingo) events.
Alliance candidates doorknock every day, and all are doing street meetings. These meetings involve speaking on between six and eight street corners every night and 10 on the weekend.
"You've got to go where people are. These days public meetings aren't what they used to be; people are so isolated today with the atomisation of society and its TV culture." McCarten says that doorknocking pays off though, with one person joining the Alliance from every 20 homes visited.
The opinion polls in recent weeks put the Alliance's support between 8% and 12%, well short of the heady 38% days, but still very credible by the standards of progressive politics. "I would hope that we'll do better than that, but I've never underestimated the power of the establishment, and that's what we're up against. People have got to realise what sort of fight we're in."