Why another leftist party in NZ is a bad idea

by Jake Quinn

There has been some talk about the establishment of a new left-wing party being set up in New Zealand.  While it is likely that this talk has been over-hyped by a news-media who are more interested in such things than your average party member or voter, talk of a new leftist party is not completely unjustified given the current alignment of the country’s parliamentary political parties.

While I will content that the notion of a new party is damaging to the left it does have merit because of the perceived* centrewards shift of the main party of the NZ left, Labour, and because of the perceived move away from strongly focused advocacy of traditional leftist social justice issues by NZ’s environmentalist party, the Greens, towards a more exclusive focus on green issues.

The names swirling around the whispers of a possible new-left-party talk include ex-Green MP and social justice campaigner Sue Bradford, leftist Maori Party MP Hone Harawira and ex-MP and Alliance Party President Matt McCarten.

A new left party in NZ is interesting for the press because its dramatic – it would give them plenty to write about, and because it would likely damage the Labour Party and Greens, which much of the political commentariate would also like to write about or simply enjoy watching.

A new leftist party would be a bad idea for the left-wing political movement in New Zealand. If successful in obtaining a sitting MP with a strong electorate majority for its ranks (say Harawira) it would very likely make it into Parliament, bringing with it whatever portion of list MPs it deserved as a result of its percent of the party-vote. This could be anything from a few percent through to high single digits, depending on the damage it did to the other parties of the left.

A new left party however would not assist the left because it would not take any votes from the right-wing parties. The right vote is firmly locked into National and Act, with a portion nestled within Labour and NZ First. A new left party would be unlikely to push Labour more centreward than it has already drifted because its activists and caucus would be unlikely to tolerate such a move.

Moreover, a new left party would be in danger of taking support from the Greens, pushing them below the five percent threshold for electoral representation and thus potentially wasting whatever remaining percentage the Greens achieved from the total left vote. The whole exercise, in this case, would have backfired.

A new left party, if successful in gaining traction and appeal in opinion polls, would also be devastating for Labour’s leadership as any real support for the new party would be interpreted by the press as a no-confidence vote in Labour.

The right would be extremely pleased to see this all play out. The introduction of a splinter party and the subsequent fracturing of the left vote would see National, polling at around fifty percent, further dwarf in terms of MPs, parliamentary recourses and presumably campaign donations, any opponent, most likely extending their reign into many more parliamentary terms.

For the above reasons I argue that the introduction of another leftist party in NZ is a bad idea for the NZ left-wing ‘movement’ – if there is such a thing. If activists of the left wish to contribute to building a socially just and fairer society they are thus urged to build capacity within and encourage support for the existing parties of the left rather than set in motion actions which may further erode the left-coalitions credibility to contest future elections.

*I use the qualifier ‘perceived’ because party members themselves would probably argue against this interpretation, which has been nurtured by the country’s mainstream media political commentators.

It is worth noting that the two major parties have only moved towards the centre on certain populist issues, not necessarily across the board. Labour’s rhetoric towards people ‘cheating the systems’ (on both the bottom end (welfare) and at the top (wealthy tax dodgers)) has become more populist under Goff, while National’s rhetoric towards Maori, for instance, is seen as having been softened during the transition from Brash’s leadership through to Key’s.

Labour and National’s tax policies, for example, have not drifted centreward. Labour is advocating the reintroduction of a distinctly more progressive income tax system, while National’s decision during its 2008-2011 term to  increase GST (NZ’s value added tax on goods and services) and flatten out the income taxation regime (removing the top income tax bracket), to the sole benefit of top income earners, could not be described as progressive.