Uninformed political conjecture on “the left”

As someone who is very interested in economics, but with a hefty distaste for tribal politics, elections and political parties are strange times for me.  I have little to no knowledge of politics, but I have some idea of policy trade-offs and political economy.  In this way, I see any comments I make about politics as relatively uninformed.  Keep that in mind.

However, I’ve seen a couple of good pieces today that have made me think about, of all things, the Alliance party.  Given what I remember about the Alliance, I feel like writing something myself.

If you were wondering what the pieces were, there was this from the Dim Post – which in passing gave me this point:

In terms of the party’s direction, if I was them I’d be looking at the seventy or eighty thousand voters they lost to New Zealand First during the last nine months and trying to win them back. That means a more socially conservative Labour Party

And this from Steve Maharey, which states that the Labour party needs to “shift centre”.

The punchline to what I’m going to say is that socially conservative (who are economically left) elements seem to hold sway over the Labour party, something Helen Clark was able to manage (and Jim Anderton managed in the Alliance until their first term in power).  These elements are not represented by most of the caucus, and are not accepted by the vast majority of the public, undermining Labour’s ability to get votes.  As a result, the more liberal and economically central members of the party should split off and form a new party (eg if you can’t manage them, drop them).  Furthermore, the Green party faces the same tensions – with their decision of how to deal with this type of split actually pretty important.


My first strong political memory was the Mother of All Budgets when I was 8 – prior to that I remember being at Democrat of Social Credit meet ups in Te Awamutu, but I had always assumed it was just a bookstore and was confused about the fact everyone seemed to be talking rather than just reading books.

By the time of the 1996 election, my family were strong supporters of the Alliance – owning Alliance memorabilia and going along to regional and national Alliance meetings.  My father was a member through social credit, while my mother was just a direct member.  At this point I was clear on what was going on – Labour and National had both done “bad” things which were “obviously” bad – and the Alliance was going to return us to something that was “good”, be this in terms of community spirit, fair income, etc etc.  At this point I didn’t realise how illusive these idea were, and how much complication turns up when you have to define them.

It wasn’t until the 1998 by-election in Taranaki-King Country that I would be forced to think about these questions, and it was the by-election that gave me a different perspective on politics and economics.  Prior to the by-election my goal was to be an economist.  Although this didn’t change immediately, by the time I was 16 I didn’t want anything to do with politics or economics

The Alliance candidate in the by-election was a good man whose beliefs about many issues were close to my own.  He had trained to be a Catholic priest, and I was (what I thought was) a strong Catholic.  The view of the Catholics where I come from was, I realise now, economically left but relatively socially liberal.  There were arguments about whether abortion is right (due to a genuine belief by  people that life begins with conception) but this existed within a broader argument about taking life being wrong, and corporal punishment being wrong.  Anti-smacking ideas were accepted as morally right, as the use of physically violence in any way was seen as wrong.  Homosexuality, sex before marriage, and judgments based on race were all non-issues – essentially we were told that morally choices were personal, what we should fight for is making sure people have an opportunity in life and the ability to make these choices themselves.

Essentially, my view of what the Alliance stood for in my bubble was close to Sen’s capability approach.

However, a national conference for the Alliance that was held prior to the by-election undermined my view of the party.  It illustrated to me how diverse the views within the Alliance were and gave me my first taste of how Jim Anderton managed this.

There was a presentation on anti-smacking, followed by a presentation on why anti-smacking was a bad idea, followed by a presentation on why the level of physical violence between a parent and their child should be set by race-based laws (a type of moral relativism).  The final presentation saw me blow my stack and I stood up and loudly criticised the idea that physcial violence was appropriate – and that we can apply moral relativism here.  During all the presentations the leaders of the Alliance party were at the front and said nothing – no disagreement, no agreement, no signal of what their policy would be or how it fit into what was being said.  In truth, they knew that the best way to keep such a diverse group together was to let them believe they had a say  – when no-one did.

After my loud disagreement, no-one I talked to in the broader party said they agreed or disagreed with me.  Instead people said I should think about moving towards politics as I had passion – people appeared more interested in the idea of passion and the strength of character, than the ethical assumptions embodied in what was going on.

During that conference I heard intolerance about minority groups, intolerance from minority groups – a play on hatred of those who were “wrong” without a clear argument for why people were so “wrong”.  I also swear that more people attacked the Greens during that conference than attacked National – something I found inconceivable.  All that seemed to hold the party together was hate – a type of design that works well in opposition, but was always going to lead to trouble in government.

Good for you, your point is?

Much of the far left in New Zealand is socially conservative.  The hankering for the idea “past” when New Zealand was an “egalitarians dream” is inherently conservative – and it is natural that people looking to the past wistfully will also support forms of persecution and intolerance that were accepted during that time.  Racism and sexism – or should I say, sticking to our appropriate “roles” – forms part of the base of support for every political party.

Now you can be far left and socially liberal.  My family was along many dimensions.  A certain reading of Sen’s capability approach can support such a position easily – it is definitely what I would view as a “progressive” position.  And I think there are a small, loud, number of people in New Zealand that fall into this camp.

Danyl states in his post that this group is small, and that it is the social conservatives that Labour needs to win back.  In some sense this is true, but such a socially conservative version of the Labour party will not satisfy what Maharey states – it is not going to be a party of the “40%”.

In Anderton’s Alliance, and in Clark’s Labour, the party positioned itself to the electorate as socially liberal (and passed socially liberal laws) while managing to get many social conservatives to vote for them.  However, the Alliance exploded as the liberal left in the caucus left Anderton wasn’t doing enough – ignoring the balancing act Anderton was trying to achieve.  Although Clark held it together during her term, once she was gone the ensuing six year civil war in Labour indicates that the same issues exist.

As Danyl points out, a party will only get sufficient votes to govern as long as it seems stable and competent.  As Maharey points out, a competent party then needs to articulate a vision that is attractive to a sufficiently large proportion of the electorate.  Danyl’s solution here is to have Labour shift to a more socially conservative stance – something I believe is a bridge too far for the majority of the Labour party caucus .

This leaves them stuck between a rock and a hard place.  The majority of the party doesn’t want to go in the direction that there base is willing to go, then it is conceivable that David Cunliffe remains in power.  Now I have no problem with Cunliffe (I have no problem with anyone in parliament) but his colleagues won’t work with him, and his hands are tied to do whatever this more conservative base desires.

In that context, it is almost a natural conclusion for me that Labour should split.  Leave the socially conservative left to do whatever they want, and form a new party that with current Labour MPs to be the real opposition.  Justify it on the basis that there are certain issues (based on polling, good arguments) that the National government needs to be fought on – and it is too important to have a dysfunctional opposition working against them.  Such a split isn’t about attacking John Key, or pretending National doesn’t have an absolute majority (they do) – it is about creating the view there is a credible opposition.

Use this party to form bipartisan commitment on some issues with National to make themselves seem credible – and then fight with regards to policies that are on the left (minimum wage, poverty, inequality).  And fight them on the environment – with RMA reform a priority and the chance of “climate sanctions” being imposed on New Zealand in the next three years rising this is a good issue to catch National out on.

The Greens and who to work with

Such a new Labour party would need to quickly define its relationship with the Greens.  Unlike Labour the Greens appear to be widely socially liberal, so this type of new party threatens to eat their lunch.  However, the division within the Greens is based far more on “far left” vs “centre-left” with regards to economic policy.  With a new Labour party moving into the Green space on the centre-left, socially liberal, and environmental spaces what happens – does their vote get eaten, do they get forced left, do they split?

This is part of a broader question of how far the Greens can increase their vote.  Discussing it with my biased sample of friends I stated:

The Greens result was interesting – I suspect that their desire to leave it an open question whether they were “left” or “centre” may have made it harder for them to eat further into Labour’s base (at least that is my reading of twitter).  But if they had gone left, they would have bleed their new young professional base.

I’m still convinced a blue-green party, pushing for the Auckland Central, Wellington Central, and Coromandel seats could have a big impact.  In fact, I’m pretty convinced that both Labour and the Greens should split, and MPs from Labour and the Greens who are “too the centre” should form such a party now – and try to take the mantle of “real opposition”.  Not going to happen though.

When I say convinced I’m not really, I’ve actually talked myself out of that somewhat.  Yes people like me and Gareth Morgan think it is a good idea – but we are hardly representative of the New Zealand public.  Sure, we are representative of many of my friends and associates, but that is quite a biased sample 😉

Now there are a lot of interesting counterfactual scenarios here:

  1. what happens if a bunch of Labour MPs just switch to the Green party?
  2. what happens if Labour and the Greens both split, with the respective “centre-left” components mixing?
  3. what happens if Labour splits and the new Labour component explicitly works with the Greens in opposition? [Note: If this leaves a more socially conservative Labour party I wouldn’t rule out them working with NZ First]


None of these scenarios are going to happen as I can’t see Labour splitting in the first place.  However, as long as the lack of internal unity prevails – an issue that is due to fundamental differences of opinion between the party’s base and the caucus – there won’t be any real opposition to National.

Now to those on the centre-left this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – as for many types of policies this government isn’t too different from Labour before it.  In a positive light, the majority for National may simply suggest we have a pretty wide-ranging policy consensus in New Zealand on many things – which, if this is your view, is neat.  Overall, I’m not against or for any of the main parties – my only interest is that policy is clearly defined, measured where possible, and always transparent.

Another thing to note here is that I am note saying that voters are abandoning Labour for being too liberal/conservative.  This is actually a bit ridiculous – the Labour MPs saying such things are fighting an internal war, not a war for votes.  The voters are steering away as they look dysfunctional – Danyl is completely right.

And it doesn’t just hurt them.  The key reason I didn’t vote Greens was because I saw it as a vote for Labour – there actions undermine the opposition in its entirety.  This is sort of important, as transparency can’t help but be undermined my a lack of opposition – even under the assumption that the governing party is purely altruistic.

5 replies
    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      If it was a credible Labour party, Greens would have likely jumped from my 3rd to 1st pick.

      I’ll note that just because this is my view doesn’t make it the whole narrative – there were a lot of people trying to push the opposite in the lead up to the election! I found it ridiculous, as I find the Greens easily as credible as the major parties – hence why I include them in my discussion of the “main” parties.

  1. jh
    jh says:

    Parties represent collections of ideas as though people had gone through an argument map. The problem is it happens in a room so the public see the result but not the dead bodies. And the result can make little sense in the cold light of day. The problem is we have a range of restaurants but do we really want a cooked saveloy in our jelly?
    In the battle at the party level basic ideas get buried yet these are what the public really need to be aware of and have a say in (at least the smartest 50%).
    Outside of the parties we have the media. The liberal media elite are pro-immigration the other half of the media are pro-business and immigration is good for business. Immigration issues are very one sided in the media (in the U.K the BBC admitted bias). I believe elites live in a different world/have different life experience to people lower down.
    A Reid Research TV3 poll showed 62% (58% GP, 68% L 85% NZF).
    I voted NZF because I believe society is in a funny stage where, will (obviously) one side gets economic benefit the other dominant group in society believe they can change human nature (create a new world) while distant from it’s ill effects.

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      No party is perfect indeed. I just felt like giving a long rambling post based on my experience with the Alliance party, due to the fact elements “felt” the same this time. I’m not sure I added any value, but I had fun 😉

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