Prompted by the resignation of a former key government minister, the August 13 Selwyn by-election result rolled ominously like thunder across the New Zealand political landscape. Although the government clung to its one-seat majority, that was perhaps the least interesting outcome of the poll. Here Green Left Weekly's FRANK NOAKES speaks with two leaders of the five-party progressive Alliance, MATT McCARTEN and KEITH LOCKE.
Every week heralds another opinion poll in New Zealand — but while regularly shown the menu, the Kiwis (like Australians) are rarely invited to order. On August 13, the choices made gave a taste of things to come.
The result in the Christchurch seat registers two related points of long-term significance: the demise of the Labour Party as a strategic force and the arrival of the Alliance as the predominant opposition to the new right.
"The more explicit right of Labour, especially the [former leader] Mike Moore faction and the Peter Dunne faction, consciously tried to reduce the Labour vote [in Selwyn] in order to give legitimacy to their future outside the Labour Party," said Alliance foreign affairs spokesperson, Keith Locke.
Amongst other things, the Alliance was offered, and refused, material on the Labour campaign from what Labour sources claim was a supporter of Mike Moore.
The head of the powerful Service Workers Union, reacting to the sabotage of the right, called for the party to kick out several MPs, including Moore. This call was echoed by the head of the other major Labour Party affiliate, the engineers' union. This public brawling took place in the run up to the by-election.
"At that point, in the face of attacks from both the right and the left, Labour's support collapsed from the 37% recorded in the last election to 10% and support for the Alliance rose from 12% to 40%," Locke said.
On August 18, Labour held a caucus meeting with much sweetness and lightness expressed by the major factional players. "Labour tried to explain away the result by claiming by-elections are always determined by tactical voting. However, if there was any tactical vote, given that Labour was way ahead at the beginning of the campaign, that vote should have gone to them." Ultimately, the Alliance vote eclipsed Labour's, taking the left-wing formation within 400 votes of winning the seat.
Current Labour leader Helen Clarke talks of Labour's future as being "centre-left" and former prime minister David Lange agrees. Lange, when asked on radio if Dunne should walk from the party answered: I think he should run.
The Labour party will split, possibly three ways, according to Locke, with a "significant body of right-wingers" leaving. He said it would be impossible for Labour to reconcile its factions.
"If there is a shift to the left by Labour, so that it adopts policies similar to the Alliance, then what's the point in having a Labour Party separate to the Alliance, particularly as the Alliance is the new, fresh and untested political force for which there's a ground swell [of support]."
On the other side, "You've got the deputy leader and the finance spokesperson saying that taxes should not be increased for the rich and supporting the Reserve Bank Act which says the only purpose of the bank is to hold down inflation". These are two of the key economic dividers in New Zealand politics today.
"There's a lot of time bombs around Labour that haven't gone off yet. In the public mind there's the perception, more than there's ever been since the formation of the party, that Labour is on the way out."
In last November's general election the Alliance was rivalled by ex-National MP Winston Peters' New Zealand First party. In Selwyn, Peters ran an old left from the anti-war movement days, Tim Shadbolt, who is currently Mayor of Invercargill; he polled 5.5%. Locke says that this populist party has lost the race to be the major new force in New Zealand politics.
The Alliance's director, Matt McCarten, who doubled as the Selwyn by-election campaign manager, is elated at the result. He explained that it was not an aberration, or a one-off, but that "it's all part of the building process. The major gains that came out of this campaign were that the Alliance is now challenging Labour very seriously for the left and centre-left ground and, equally importantly, we won significant union support for the first time. We were able to get a lot of young people involved and ordinary rank and file workers too."
Labour lost every polling booth, with the Alliance picking up Labour's vote in working-class areas.
"The Trade Union Federation came out in support of the Alliance as did a few other unions. But the significance comes from the 80% who said they support the Alliance because of our policies. We have very clear positions whereas Labour is all over the show just relying on its name which is no longer holding up."
According to McCarten some of the media have yet to get over the shock of the by-election result. "The bias of the media came out through the campaign. Even when the polls were showing Labour was collapsing they refused to believe the signals; they were saying 'we don't believe the polls'. Even in the last few days they said 'Labour is coming back, the Alliance is dropping', but this wasn't the case.
"People didn't vote for Labour because they didn't trust it; it didn't stand for anything. It has left rhetoric but its policies are right-wing. It is trying to appease the factions but it can't because they're diametrically opposed. Every time they have a chance to sort themselves out they duck and take the easy way out, that's why they can't survive."
Alliance leader Jim Anderton, nailed his party's economic flag to the mast from the beginning. Anderton told the electors of Selwyn that the last three governments had taken from the poor to given to the rich. The Sheriff of Nottingham was running the country, Anderton told a public meeting in the electorate, and called for the community to vote for Robin Hood.
Both the governing Nationals and Labour accused Anderton of economic irresponsibility. The Nationals claimed that if the Alliance won — denying the government a working majority — there would be massive instability, interest rates would rise and inflation would take off. To back this up the market devalued the dollar in the days leading to the poll.
"The markets will crash and civilisation as we know it will end," recalls McCarten. "But it got too much. It's the third time they've used this argument. It didn't affect the markets that much and it didn't affect the vote. A lot of people are starting to get pissed off about it, I mean, who is actually supposed to be running the country?
"I've been asked how can the Alliance win elections when the markets keep reacting whenever it gets close. It actually brings up the interesting debate about who controls the country. People are going to start asking the questions.
"I think the markets are so upset because they are losing control. The government is supposed to be there to represent the people, so if the markets control the government then what's the point in having democratic elections? What's the point in being a democracy? Why not call a spade a spade and have a board of corporate chiefs run the country?
"A lot of the media and big business say they are going to put the Alliance under more scrutiny. We welcome that. We're very keen on having our policies scrutinised and debated. If that happens I think it will be healthy."
Following the election, Anderton stated that the Alliance would not be held captive to the market. If some capital took flight at the election of an Alliance government, then so be it, he said.