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State of the Left New Zealand

Unpicking the ‘left bloc’ delusion

Josie Pagani - 21 October 2016

Recent polling exposes the New Zealand Labour party’s strategy of pursuing a potential pact with other leftwing parties as fatally flawed

How is it that the New Zealand Labour party can win elections at local authority level, when it continues to be monstered by the incumbent, conservative National party in national polls?

In the local body elections in October, Labour swept the card. A Labour mayor is in office in every major city.

Labour people hope it has found a secret organisational sauce that helps to maximise turnout among its own supporters.

There’s long been a call for Labour’s electoral strategy to be mobilising the so-called ‘missing million’ – voters who can’t be bothered casting a ballot. The theory goes that these voters are leftwing and can be woken from their slumber with the click of socialist fingers and the roar of radical policy, marshalled by fanatical local organisation.

Trouble is, there is not much evidence to support the theory. When qualitative polls ask non-voters what they think, they don’t reveal a policy difference between voters and non-voters that conforms to the theory. In 2014, when Labour campaigned on its most leftwing platform for decades, it plummeted to its lowest vote share in modern history.

Thus left tacticians developed a further theory. They advocated for a ‘left bloc’ strategy, which holds that Labour need not try to win more votes than any other in parliament. In our German-style proportional representation system it is only necessary for the left in parliament to out number the right.

To this end, Labour, polling around 30 per cent, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Green party, then polling around 12 per cent, expecting that their combined total would be close to the government's 45 per cent or so. Then, the theory goes, the ideologically quirky New Zealand First party would join with the forces of light and claim the Treasury benches.

I bet you can't guess what happened next.

In the most recent poll by Television New Zealand and Colmar Brunton Labour dropped to 26, National rose to 48, and there was no way of doing the maths that made the ‘left bloc’ strategy work.

It’s only one poll, but the average of polls is consistently below the average of the previous term and the two before that – all elections Labour went on to lose.

While it’s long been widely accepted that the biggest party in parliament doesn’t have to lead the government – there are many problems with the ‘left bloc’ strategy: for example, it’s been tried three times in a row and failed three times in a row.

It’s not really credible that NZ First would hand Treasury benches to a party with 30 per cent support over a party with 45 per cent, especially if it had to share the Treasury benches with another ‘supporting’ partner.

But there is a deeper structural problem, and it’s one that the ‘left bloc’ strategy shares with the ‘missing million’ approach: adding the pieces differently is no substitute for doing the hard work of asking why Labour can’t be more popular than its conservative rival.

In an unpublished survey by Labour's pollster, UMR, voters were asked whether they believed Labour was ready for government, regardless of which party they support or who they believe will win. Sixty per cent said Labour wasn’t – including around half of Labour voters.

Therefore Labour's success in electing local mayors is less a signal that the mood is turning, but instead, a good guide to what it needs to do.

First, Labour's appeal at the local level is partly a result of its natural pro-community relevance to improving people’s lives. That tells us devolving power and decision-making helps put progressive values into action, and works in elections.

While voters' minds are open to our values, they need to see credibility.  Former Labour leader Phil Goff won the Auckland mayoralty by campaigning as a fiscal conservative. He has reached across the political divide to appoint a deputy. 

In Wellington, my friend Nick Leggett – a Progress supporter – was defeated by a Labour-endorsed candidate, who campaigned as moderate. With the left, right and centrist candidates all campaigning on moderate platforms, the successful platform turned out to be the one with the clearest expression of values. And the Labour candidate enjoyed an enormous organisational advantage. In elections where turnout is well below that in general elections, this was skilful. It's worth trying to replicate nationally, but organisational wizardry isn’t sufficient without a clear, credible programme.

Josie Pagani is a political consultant and commentator

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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