It’s now 24 hours since the election result, a victory for the National Party giving John Key his third term. This, after the strangest election campaign I’ve ever seen, where jousting over policy seemed to take second place to juvenile sneering – and that’s just the protagonists. For a summary of the weirdness, check out Giovanni Tiso’s explanation for our incredulous Australian neighbours.
While the left beats its breast, falls on its sword and engages in other types of self-harm, John Key has the luxury of forming his government from several different “support parties”, none of whom is in a strong negotiating position. That’s good for New Zealand if you accept the premises that the National Party is centre-right, or even centrist as the narrative has become in the last few days, and that these centrist policies are delivering and will continue to deliver for New Zealanders. Key can’t be held to ransom by any of the sparrows seeking the crumbs from his table because he doesn’t really need them. Even if, as seems likely, he loses an MP on specials, he wouldn’t be any worse off than he was during the last term.
That brings me to Colin Craig and his Conservatives. His failure is the only real comfort I’ve drawn from the election result. Colin is very explicit that, if two thirds of New Zealanders think something should be implemented it must be implemented, after a referendum that would be binding on the government. The fiscal lunacy of that aside, and noting that that lunacy may be able to be fixed by a veto, this is pure majoritarianism that leads to oppressing minorities. Just because something is in the interests of the majority does not make it right, as history has shown time over time. It’s not credible that Craig doesn’t realise this, so he’s pandering to people who value prejudice over morality, along with his fellow traveller Family First. I’m glad they got less than 5% because of what that says about New Zealanders, and perhaps perversely I’m glad that it’s nearly 5% because many of those votes would otherwise have further swollen John Key’s majority.
My real concern at this point is the Labour Party. It seems a shadow of its former self. Part of that is due of course to the existence of a substantial competing party in the Greens, but even when added together their share of the vote at around 35% seems incredibly low. The principal difference in the reactions of those two parties to their disappointing performances is that Labour – incredibly – seems to be about to embark on yet another round of internal warfare. People just seem to accept this behaviour as normal, but it’s not normal in other parties. Sure, losing an election is grounds for introspection, but a leader often survives that at least once. For sheer savagery it’s hard to beat Labour’s internal politics, or at least visible savagery, because while National clearly has warring factions their struggles seldom become public. It just seems to be accepted that Labour will have a bitter fight and possibly a fourth leader in a couple of years. That’s how it works. Spare us.
The issue here is not the political cage fight in Labour’s top ranks but that this becomes the narrative. The press is once again full of Labour’s internal squabbles, to the extent it’s what gets reported rather than policy. I feel as though we are in a circle of children yelling “fight, fight, fight” at two kids in the playground while the grown-ups quietly get on with running the school. That isn’t how it should be.
The risk for Labour is that, by the time it emerges from its battles, and a new or old leadership is endorsed, and presumably white-anted by the losers (with gleeful help from David Farrar and Cameron Slater) just as the current one has been, that the role of opposition has been ably taken up by Russel and Metiria. They have the time to focus on an alternative narrative to the government’s, to criticise and challenge John Key and generally to look like a government in waiting, to be the effective leadership of the opposition. That’s a feathered cloak that the Greens may not want to give back to whoever eventually rises to the top of the roiling pool of Labour.
To his credit, I think David Cunliffe understands this, which is why he is pushing his opponents to put up or shut up. The problem is that any victory in unlikely to be final, with the jockeying for position continuing long after a leader is crowned.
Those of us who wanted to see a change in government have a right to feel very disappointed at Labour. You had a chance here, and frankly you let us down. Could you please decide not to do that? Because, if you don’t, you might just as well shut up shop and endorse the Greens.