Dunne Speaks: Jeremy Little, Andrew Corbyn or Shane Jones?

So, the Leader of the Opposition thinks elections should not be about who wins the centre ground. He is right, up to a point, especially about bringing together “coalitions of interests” in his bid to win office. Where he is wrong, however, is that no New Zealand Government – single or multi party, pre or post MMP – has ever been elected without winning over the centre ground of politics. Moreover, for at least one hundred years, New Zealand has had moderately conservative governments, led since the 1930s by either National or Labour. We do not have a tradition of electing governments based on their ideological fervour, as both Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson found to their cost in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Even the great, reforming first Labour Government had to rely on the ravages of the Great Depression across our society since 1929, rather the zeal of its reformism, to win office in 1935.) While the Leader of the Opposition is right to talk of “coalitions of interests” he is wrong to assume he alone can put them together without the glue of the centre ground. Fraser, Holyoake, and more latterly Clark and Key fully understood that point. Mr Little, who is nowhere near their league, appears not to.

It was probably only coincidence, but Mr Little’s timing could not have been worse. To renounce the centre ground the way he did the very weekend the British Labour Party re-elected its overtly old-fashioned socialist leader, thereby consigning it to political oblivion until at least 2025 as most commentators predict, was at best extremely unfortunate. At worst, it had all the hallmarks of an international Labour death-wish, making it more likely that it will be at least 2020, if not 2023, before New Zealand Labour becomes a serious player again. Mr Little, notwithstanding, that is probably unlikely, however.

Karl Marx once wrote that the thing to learn from history is that people do not. After its defeat in 1949, Labour was not a serious challenger to National (aside from the brief period of resurgence in the late 1950s under the septuagenarian Nash and his 1940s throwbacks) until the Kirk ascendancy in the late 1960s, culminating in the 1972 landslide. And the idiosyncratic Muldoon era was only ended in 1984 when that witty and friendly Mr Lange came along. In 1999, Helen Clark was elected because she had become the dominant politician of her time. It is no coincidence that along the way, Kirk, Lange and Clark had all moderated their message to win the public confidence, and that Labour only won office when they did so. Yet the far less impressive Mr Little apparently believes he can eschew those lessons.

As a progressive party Labour traditionally has more activist policies than its more conservative rivals, so its determination not to wish to compromise its intentions too much is quite understandable, although there is a time when forsaking the prospect of office (and thereby the ability to do something for the people you represent) rather than moderate a stance, is somewhat foolhardy. As another great Labour leader who was to return his party to government after nearly a quarter century in the wilderness – Australia’s Gough Whitlam – once excoriated his chauvinistic, faceless, geriatric national executive, “only the impotent are pure.” But again, the decidedly inferior Mr Little knows better.  

In 1981, the British Labour Party was led by a rampant left-winger, Michael Foot. It had been out of office for about 60% of the time since 1945, and showed no immediate signs of being capable of returning anytime soon. Frustrated centrists, led by Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, despairing of their party’s future and retreat from the centre, issued the Limehouse Declaration that led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the ultimate merger with the moribund Liberal Party to form the modern Liberal Democrats. History may be about to repeat itself following Mr Corbyn’s re-election, with Liberal Democrat membership rising sharply.

By contrast, in New Zealand, Labour has been out of power for two-thirds of the time since 1945, and similarly is showing no signs of an early return to office. So, is a split like Britain likely here as well? Who knows, but here is a possible scenario. Assume the return of Shane Jones to Parliament in 2017 wearing a New Zealand First shirt. It then becomes possible to see a new political grouping emerging of traditional working class Labour (that probably now votes New Zealand First anyway), provincial small business and non-middle class Maori coming together under Mr Jones, along with the mainstream remnants of the present Labour Party to mount a serious challenge to National by 2020. Under such a scenario, Labour’s non trade union left would gravitate to the Greens, leaving the Maori Party and UnitedFuture to seek to appeal to its Maori and urban liberals respectively.

While that is just speculation, the reality in the meantime, since Labour no longer wants it, is that the centre ground of New Zealand politics is now completely up for grabs.

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