The general election of 1990 was the first real test for the NewLabour Party (NLP). The existence of elections every three years serves to intensify the selection and refining of a party’s particular policies and political positions. The election acts to test these policies as well as the party’s organisation structure including its ability to mobilise activists for the event. Elections also reassert the importance of the party’s leadership, as they shift the emphasis to the idea of particular members of the party potentially becoming representatives in the national legislature. Furthermore, because elections test the success of the organisation, they automatically lead to some sort of internal party evaluation of the many decisions that were made prior to the election. This means that elections are often substantial turning points in the nature of political parties. This was certainly the case with the NLP. [Read more below]
NLP electorate support
The NLP fought the election standing on a generally working class platform. The working class certainly lay at the core of the party’s electoral support (Vowles and Aimer, 1993: p.161) and the party was to perform best in electorates with a strong traditional working class base. According to Jack Vowles, the NLP’s election strategy,
An electoral agreement was forged for the general election with Mana Motuhake, a Maori nationalist party led by Matt Rata, an ex-Labour Party MP, who had resigned from the Labour Party in 1979. Mana Motuhake agreed not to field any candidates in the 93 general constituency seats, and the NLP pledged not to stand candidates in the four Maori seats. This agreement was reached on the understanding that the two parties advocated somewhat similar policies.
The poor election result
The results of the elections were not uplifting for the party. Despite the heavy defeat for the Labour Government, the NLP only managed to win 5.2% of the national vote and ‘elsewhere the NLP only scored more than 1000 votes in 22 of the 97 Parliamentary seats’ (Parussini, 1990: p.9). The NLP vote therefore was hardly a decisive factor in the defeat of the Labour Government, nor did it bode well for the party’s plans for usurping the Labour Party as the main opposition party to National.
However, Anderton won his Sydenham seat by a majority of 4000. He therefore made political history in New Zealand — being the only MP to resign from their party and stand against that party and win. Retaining the seat of Sydenham was also a significant assurance for the NLP’s future survival. It meant that the party would continue to have some public credibility, the financial resources provided by parliament, and a representative who was in a position to be able to constantly put forward the party’s politics and vision to the country.
NLP members were shocked, however, by the superior performance of the Green Party of Aotearoa. Green candidates beat their NLP counterparts into fourth place in all but seven electorates in which Greens stood. Although the Greens ran candidates in only 71 electorates, the party achieved 7% of the national vote — 2% more than the NLP.
What made this particularly galling for the NLP, was the fact that the Green Party had only formed five months prior to the election, had no leaders, no real national programme, and very few members. Interestingly, the results of a comprehensive survey of environmentalists that preceded the 1990 election indicated that the NLP’s environmental policies were superior to those of the Green Party. Likewise, as Vowles and Aimer point out, the NLP claimed ‘with some justification that they, not the Greens, had the more substantial environmental policy’ (Vowles and Aimer 1993: p.156).
The NLP’s progress was not therefore as spectacular as some might have hoped. After an initial burst of publicity the NLP had not exactly fired the public’s imagination. The party slogan was 'NewLabour: party of the future', but the result suggested that, in its then form, the NLP could not hope to break outside of its insignificant support base.
There were a number of reasons why the NLP performed so poorly in the General Election. Certainly one reason was the problem that the NLP was not always perceived as a proper party in its own right, but more as a faction of the Labour Party. As Bruce Jesson pointed out:
Part of the problem was in the name of the party. Firstly, it gave the impression that the party was locked into the past. But more importantly, it reinforced misconceptions that the party was some sort of faction of, or even aligned to, the New Zealand Labour Party. No doubt it cause some voter confusion, with the attitude of some voters being: “New Labour, old Labour. I don’t want any Labour” (Amos, 1991, pp.1,2).
The NLP also had a somewhat negative, and even vengeful image among the public as merely a protest party, rather than a party with a positive message. As an editorial in The Press pointed out, ‘It hurt the NLP’s chances that no other Labour MP defected with Mr Anderton. This made his exit from Labour and his setting up of a new party look less of a mass crusade and more of a personal vendetta’ (The Press, 11 August 1990).
The shift in opinion on economic policy within New Zealand society also counted against the NLP. Jesson was again insightful:
This meant that the party struggled against the widespread idea that ‘the NLP harks back to a past that cannot be recreated: an image of New Zealand more appropriate to the 1930s than the 1990s’ (Vowles, 1990: p.55). The party’s founding policies and principles — although fairly moderate by historical standards — therefore seemed all the more utopian and extreme relative to 1990s’ neo-liberal policy environment.
A victim of anti-politics
Paradoxically, it seems that the party had also been a victim of a general disenchantment with politicians and politics. So, although the party attempted to campaign on the ‘treachery’ of Labour’s shifting principles and broken promises, the fact that New Zealand’s political culture of trust in election promises had decreased meant therefore that potential NLP voters were probably suspicious of the party’s somewhat grandiose and elaborate promises. People’s disillusionment with the Labour Government stood more chance of being channelled into votes for National or the Greens than it did NewLabour. Much of the Greens’ vote was made up of people who had become disenchanted with politics in general, and therefore were alienated rather than impressed by both the NLP’s professionalism and old-fashioned approach to campaigning.
As Jesson pointed out in an election commentary, the NLP was,
According to Vowles and Aimer (1993) there was ‘a possible tendency among voters leaning to NewLabour to think again and vote Labour in the hope of keeping a National candidate from victory in a vulnerable seat’ (Vowles and Aimer, 1993: p.155). The NLP’s chances were probably not helped by the image that the party had of being a nest of ‘loony left’ extremists.
Next blog post: Post-election internal evaluation and reaction