Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now: The 1980s New Zealand Left Split

For those with a morbid interest in New Zealand political history, Chris Trotter has an interesting article on the merits of the 1989 Labour/New Labour split:

What the hell are ordinary members supposed to do when your party’s Government goes crazy? Trotter argues that if the left-wing activists hadn’t left the party to form their own, they’d have been purged.

As a New Zealand Leftist myself, I’ve occasionally pondered this very question – the merits of staying and fighting, or of jumping ship. Bearing in mind, I was a mere six years old at the time of the split, so the matter is more theoretical for me. On the other hand, I grew up in a left-wing household, so such matters remained dinner-table discussion throughout my childhood. I still remember my Labour-voting parents cheering the defeat of Richard Prebble on election night 1993.

I feel Trotter errs on three points:

(1) He misapplies the example of Blairism.

(2) The voter-base didn’t follow the activists.

(3) He understates the damage of a disunited New Zealand Left during the 1990s.

On the first point, the mythology of New Zealand Labour is very different to Britain’s. New Zealand’s mythology is that the Labour Party went crazy right-wing in the 1980s, and has been running away from it ever since. Britain’s mythology is that the Labour Party went crazy left-wing in the 1980s and has been running away from it ever since. The Left of the UK Labour Party gets clobbered with the ghosts of 1983 (as though the SDP and the Falklands played no part in that result), with Blairism explicitly feeding off desperation over “electability”.

The New Zealand Left avoided Blairism because the local Labour Party has no narrative equivalent to British Labour’s 1983 or the US Democrats’ 1972. There is no election where the conventional wisdom holds that New Zealand Labour lost because it was too left-wing (at least on economics). Given that 1990 was an all-mighty rejection of the Fourth Labour Government, the scope for a Blairite/Rogernome to purge the Left on electoral grounds feels narrow indeed.

On the second point, I’d actually suggest that while the Alliance took a large chunk of the left-wing activists out of Labour, it did not necessarily take a large chunk of left-wing voters. The Alliance vote-share in the 1990s included old Social Credit voters and Greens, rather than simply being a measure of “Lefties angry at Labour.” Moreover, it is worth remembering that in 1990 it was Labour – not National – that managed second place in Jim Anderton’s own electorate of Sydenham. In short, the core of Labour’s voter-base stayed loyal, even in the face of gross Governmental betrayal.

My own parents are actually examples of this. Both of them voted Labour in 1990, while having no time for the economic reforms – albeit, this was First Past the Post, so their votes didn’t matter anyway. I myself have retrospectively agreed with them, on the basis that Labour in 1990 had absolutely no chance of winning, and it was more important to strengthen the Opposition against the incoming National Government (which, indeed, proved far worse for the Left than even Labour had been). If there had been the danger of Labour winning 1990, or if I’d been living in an electorate with a Rogernome MP, I’d have done differently, of course.

That flows through to the third point. The New Zealand Left spent the 1990s mired in two different and simultaneous civil wars – the wider Labour vs Alliance one, and the factional Helen Clark vs Mike Moore one. Both of which hamstrung the Left’s ability to actually fight the National Government. Recall also that the 1993 election vote-shares were National 35%, Labour 34%, Alliance 18%. Sure, as I have noted, that 18% were not necessarily New Labour-style left-wingers, but the fact still remains: the left-wing split got the Government of Ruth Richardson, Crown Health Enterprises, and the Employment Contracts Act re-elected. On a third of the vote. Ugh.

(Yes, the Alliance took out Richard Prebble. And, yes, that was glorious, even if it rather confused ten year-old me. But the same result might have been achieved by putting the effort into unseating him via an Independent, rather than splitting the vote up and down the country. Prebble’s scalp doesn’t make up for saving Richardson).

So yeah. While I harbour no ill-will to the old Alliance-types, it is not a road I personally would have gone down. Looking at the actual results, it’s also not the road that most of the New Zealand working class actually took, however upset they may have been at the horrors of the 1980s. That sort of disconnect between activists and voters can only ever end badly. Moreover, contrary to Trotter’s insinuations, remaining with a hijacked party does not imply passive acceptance of the hijackers. There is a case that it requires more courage to stay and fight than to run away to the safety blanket of impotent ideological purity.

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