After a brief honeymoon following its launch in 1993, NZ First failed to fulfill the widespread expectations that it was going to be a major player in the party system. In its first electoral venture it performed relatively poorly. [Read more below]
Two months after the party’s launch the poll ratings had dropped to about 8% support. The party constantly rated below 10% in opinion polls throughout its first year and managed to win only 8.4% of the 1993 general election vote. Winston Peters continued to rate much more highly in the preferred prime minister polls, but was unable to turn that personal support into party support.
Part of the explanation for NZ First’s initial failure could be found in its botched start-up and its continued mishandling of events. The origins of this problem came back, of course, to the lack of a party organisation. Related to this, was the damaging public perception that NZ First was still only a one-man band – lacking any great depth of personal talent.
The political message of NZ First was also probably failing to find traction due to its failure to project any positivity – instead it only offered negative criticisms of the status quo. Part of Peters’ problem was that he failed to turn the disgruntlement of the party and its support into coherent policy. The contradictions of the task often defeated him: ‘he had, for example, to promise both low taxes... and an active government' (James, The Future, 1994: p.166).
Also as a disadvantage, NZ First clearly lacked the clear-cut constituencies of ACT, National and Labour. And not only did the party lack a stable social base, but it also lacked the extra-parliamentary institutional ties that normally anchor a party’s support. For example, while the Labour Party was supported by various trade unions and the National Party by farmer and business groups, there were no institutions backing NZ First. Partly due to this, public support would in the future, fluctuate very widely.
General election of 1993
NZ First’s lack of organisation was reflected in its failure to live up to its intention to stand candidates in all 99 electorates. Furthermore, the hurried selection process saw that many of the candidates chosen were, according to Michael Laws ‘from the ranks of the politically unsophisticated and the frankly opportunistic’ (Hames, 1995: p.187?). Unsurprisingly only a small proportion of those standing in 1993, were reselected as candidates in 1996.
NZ First did not have a good election campaign in 1993. Its vote of 8.4% was a disappointing result in the context of Winston Peters’ earlier high personal support. A large part of the explanation for the low result was attributable to the disorganised state of the party organisation, which meant that the traditional party election activities failed to occur, and much of the NZ First election publicity was unprofessional in appearance. NZ First was also disadvantaged by being ‘excluded from television advertising by legislative rules which had the effect of prohibiting the party from State funding and from using its own resources to purchase air time’ (Levine and Roberts, 1994: p.?).
The 1993 campaign style of NZ First was in line with the party’s “old-style” approach to political ‘process’ and their attempts at nostalgic appeal, with Peters essentially performing a traditional campaign involving ‘a hectic schedule averaging three rallies per day, all around the country. It was a style of campaigning in marked contrast to that of his opponents’ (Hames, 1995: p.201).
[This blog post is part of a series about the history of the New Zealand First party. These posts are being published following the recent decline and then defeat of the party at the 2008 general election. Little academic research has been published on the Winston Peters phenomenon, despite the fact that he and his party have been central to parliamentary politics in New Zealand since the 1980s. Although this series focuses on the early years of New Zealand First, the later years will be dealt with in the future. Considered feedback from readers is very welcome.]