12/07/2017
Alex Eastwood-Williams
Opinion
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In Defence of Little Andrew

Anyone who has read the recent polls, even badly, knows that the New Zealand Labour Party are on course for a cataclysmic defeat in the September general election. 

Labour have dropped to 27% in the latest Colmar Brunton poll - on par with their crushing defeat in the 2011 election and barely two points above their 2014 result, which saw the party achieve its worst result since 1919. Furthermore, if historical trends are anything to go by, Labour are set to lose more support as the campaign goes on - by this stage in 2014 they were at 28% in the polls, dropping three more points between then and election day. 

Labour surely know they are in trouble - based on these poll numbers, would-be Speaker Trevor Mallard will not be able to win a list seat, nor will former Northland by-election candidate Willow-Jean Prime and controversial broadcaster and former Alliance MP Willie Jackson. If their numbers dip below 23% - a scenario that looks increasingly likely, they will return no list MPs whatsoever, including party leader Andrew Little. 

What's worse is that polls show Andrew Little - who has been languishing in third place behind John Key (then Bill English) and Winston Peters has now dropped into fourth place in the 'preferred Prime Minister' rating. He currently has less than half of Winston Peter's support, and less than a fifth of the Prime Minister's.

Labour's Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern has moved into third place, on 6%, her popularity courtesy of her prolific use of social media as well as considerable exposure in soft media: She is, for example, currently on the cover of this month's issue of "Next Magazine" and was recently covered in the NZ Herald's hard-hitting exposé on her ability to impersonate Helen Clark.

The conventional wisdom, therefore, is that the now-mononymous Jacinda is next in line to take over Labour's throne after Andrew Little leads the party to certain defeat (or, alternatively, into a coalition government in which Winston Peters is the Prime Minister.)

I'm not going to argue that that isn't going to happen, but I am going to throw Andrew Little a bone and argue that it shouldn't happen. In fact I'm even going to be so bold as to say Andrew Little might just be Labour's last gasp of hope before it declines into minor party status, and goes the way the UK Liberal Party went in the 20th century.  

There's no denying that Labour is in terminal decline - even when National won an historic fourth term in 1969, it did so narrowly and faced a Labour Party that was resurgent in the polls.

Yet the Labour Party of today continues to track downwards in support nearly four terms into opposition - even in the face of scandals in the National Party, a lacklustre Prime Minister (they don't call him "Boring Bill" for nothing), a housing crisis, a low growth economy, rising inflation and record high immigration. Other third term governments facing crises like this would be facing certain defeat; it says a lot about the state of the Labour Party that they are still unable to gain traction with the government in this much chaos. 

So why on earth am I claiming that Andrew Little is Labour's last hope? He's not a great politician. He's not even a good politician - an official opposition leader does not get only 5% in the polls by being a good politician.

It really comes down to two factors: Understanding demographics, and understanding the alternative option.

On the first, it needs to be understood who Labour's core constituency really are, and to discover that I have turned to Dan McGlashan's excellent and highly recommended book Understanding New Zealand

Traditionally a party of the urban working class, since the late 1970s (beginning with the death of Norman Kirk), Labour have begun to espouse increasingly socially and indeed economically liberal policies, finding a new core of support in the student movement and the wealthy liberal elite - the champagne socialists, if you will. This change in support base culminated firstly in the much maligned fourth labour government - which introduced sweeping neoliberal economic reforms, followed by the fifth labour government which focused almost exclusively on 'social justice' while doing very little to reverse the neoliberal economic reforms that had done considerable harm to working class New Zealanders - who were once Labour's base. 

While relying on support from urban hipsters in central Auckland and Wellington allowed Helen Clark to survive three terms in office, a new threat emerged - National, once a rural conservative party, had rebranded itself as hip, urban and liberal under the leadership of John Key, and the people who were once right-on Helen Clark supporters became Young Nats or Greens. 

The loss of the middle class liberal crowd to National and the Greens has forced Labour to return to its working class roots - roots that, unfortunately, most of the party don't understand the values of. 

Working class people have always tended to be quite socially conservative - and for years so too was the Labour Party. Once Labour began to shift toward social liberalism, much of the working class switched allegiances and started supporting Rob Muldoon's National Party, and later new parties such as Winston Peters' New Zealand First. To give another more recent example of the relationship between social conservatism and the working class, it was working class people who put Donald Trump in the White House while his socially liberal (well... so she claimed at the time) opponent was supported by Hollywood, Wall Street and the wealthy metropolitan elite. 

Demographic analysis supports this too. Unlike the US, where issues like abortion keep most Christians firmly on the political right, in New Zealand religious people are nearly 70% more likely to vote for Labour than for National. Much of this is due to the fact that Pacific Islanders make up a large section of Labour's core support base, and these people tend to be more religious than other demographics. 

Rather than pandering to the hipster crowd - who they will never win back from the Greens and National - if Labour is to survive in the future, they need to understand and nurture their socially conservative working class base before they lose them forever to New Zealand First - or even the Conservative Party. 

This brings me back to Andrew Little: While economically he appears to have shifted Labour slightly further left, he is also arguably the most socially conservative (or at least moderate) leader Labour have had since Mike Moore - courtesy primarily of his anti-immigration rhetoric. If Little wants to save his party, he needs to look at the abandoned Blue Labour concept of the UK - and accept that, unlike UK Labour's surprise success with Jeremy Corbyn, NZ Labour will never quite be able to achieve the same result due to MMP and the fracturing of the left. 

The chances of this happening in the party whose youth wing suggested taxpayer funded genital mutilation are of course about zero in a million. But if Labour has any chance of retaining a distinct identity as a political party, then it urgently needs to return to its conservative blue-collar roots. 

Under the likely alternative, that is Jacinda Ardern, Labour's metamorphosis into a party for middle class urban liberals will be complete and irreversible. Not only will they lose the conservative working class base forever, but they will be forced to compete with the Greens not just for voters but for existence itself - and the Greens, with more legitimacy and experience representing wealthy urban liberals, are more likely to come out on top than Labour. 

Meanwhile, an Ardern leadership would kill any chances Labour have of attracting votes from the centre (let alone right) thereby permanently relegating them to minor party status, and to being a minor party without any characteristics that define it against its competitors. 

And considering that this result is almost inevitable, this article is therefore not so much advice as an obituary written in advance. 

About the author

A failed artist turned to politics (because when has that ever gone wrong?). A right-wing populist, Red Tory, civic nationalist and Westie, railing on behalf of blue-collar people against the liberal globalist elite.