During the early formation period of the Alliance, public opinion polls gave the as-yet-unformed coalition percentage ratings in the mid-30s. These results were largely illusionary, as some sections of the public which were probably outside of the Alliance’s potential support-base simply flirted with the novelty of the new coalition. Yet it still indicated that the Alliance was likely to be a substantial political force in at least the short-term future. [Read more below]
Early electoral tests
Within the first three years of its existence, the Alliance was to do battle in one major general election, as well as by-elections in Tamaki, Wellington Central, and Selwyn. This was to have important ramifications for the organisational and political nature of the Alliance, as well as the NLP’s position in it. New Zealand had seen only one by-election in the previous twelve years. The phenomenon of three by-elections and a general election within such a short time had, for the Alliance the effect of magnifying the influence of elections on party organisation. In terms of policy, the succession of elections allowed for a continuing public evaluation of Alliance policy — and in particular, economic policy.
Elections also affect the internal organisational relationships of a party: ‘During an election campaign moribund parties are brought back to life. Enthusiasm mounts and the pulse quickens as activists discover that at last there is something specific for them to do. Organisation is consolidated and discipline is tightened as the party enters its most crucial test’ (Harrop and Miller, 1987: p.268). Thus, a re-working of internal organisational dynamics takes place. The continual electoral tests therefore served to keep the Alliance organisation in a state of flux, yet at the same time reinforced and consolidated the role of the leadership.
The Tamaki by-election occurred in February 1992 — ten weeks after the Alliance was publicly launched, and three months before the Greens were to make their decision to join. (The Green Party had at this stage agreed in principle to eventually join the Alliance, but were not committed to the union). The Alliance and its popularity were therefore put to an early test. According to Chris Trotter:
Just as the exigencies of the 1990 general election served to ensure that the labourite faction’s economic policies prevailed within the NLP, the Tamaki by-election acted to set the Alliance in a particular policy direction. Bruce Jesson and Matt McCarten were given the task of creating the policy platform for the Alliance in Tamaki. Not surprisingly, they wrote a fairly standard NLP manifesto — although the candidate was a Democrat. The relative policy vacuum in the Alliance was therefore quickly filled by the NLP’s seizure of this opportune moment. Yet it was always likely that the NLP’s policy would predominate in the Alliance. After all, the NLP was the only party in the coalition with a coherent, well-developed, and credible economic policy.
The NewLabour economic policy was credible in the sense that the policies were close to views of some mainstream New Zealand economists, such as Brian Easton and Paul Dalziel. In particular, however, they were credible, relative to the economic policies of the other Alliance parties. The Greens’ economic policy was virtually non-existent. They had an array of disjointed policies and views, but many were not compatible with the contemporary economic and political framework. Most had a decentralised nature and were more appropriate to local rather than national government. Mana Motuhake had even less in the way of an economic policy. Apart from a couple of vague objectives to promote Maori economic advancement and self-reliance, they had virtually no economic proposals for the wider New Zealand economy. While the Democrats had a relatively elaborate economic policy, it was one that was largely discredited. Although they had moderated their social credit philosophy, they were still tainted with the ‘funny-money’ label.
The Alliance had been performing well in all the opinion polls conducted in the lead up to the election, yet in the final week there was a succession of economic ‘good news’ released by government and financial agencies. These undoubtedly contributed to the 2 to 3% swing away from the Alliance in the late stages of the campaigning period (Luke, 1992: p.6). The Alliance candidate, Chris Leitch (pictured on the right), was narrowly beaten by National.
It was in this first by-election that the Alliance’s political and economic opponents were given their first real chance to attempt to discredit the NLP-derived economic policy. The Alliance’s opponents included not just the opposition parties — who colluded with each other against the Alliance (Miller and Catt, 1993), but also some domestic and overseas financial interests who came out publicly against the Alliance.
The media, too, displayed a considerable antipathy towards the Alliance (Miller and Catt, 1993 – chapter four and p.180). Raymond Miller and Helena Catt concluded this about the media coverage of the first two by-elections: ‘To some extent the media became a compliant partner in the strong attacks launched on the Alliance’s credibility’ (Miller and Catt, 1993: p.180). Typical of many journalists attitudes to the Alliance’s economic policy, was a comment in the New Zealand Herald that:
Wellington Central by-election
The Alliance was to face more of this type of criticism in the Wellington Central by-election — despite the fact that the Alliance offered a further watered-down economic policy. The electoral test in Wellington Central was particularly challenging for the Alliance, given the high-income nature of that electorate, as well as the then growing public optimism and belief in the existence of an economic recovery. This made the Alliance’s economic policies a particular focus in the campaign and was something that the Labour and National parties manipulated to their full advantage, encouraging the close scrutiny and debate on the Alliance’s high taxation policies.
In the end, the NLP-derived economic policies advocated by the Alliance, caused considerable damage to the organisation’s electoral chances. Although the Alliance had an appealing and well known candidate in Dennis Welch, it polled less than 20% of the votes, with Welch only picking up a few hundred more votes than the sole Green candidate had won in 1990. This is likely to have had some effect in making the Alliance rethink the nature of their economic package. As Miller and Catt Pointed out: ‘the Alliance’s series of gaffs over its tax policy in Wellington Central caused major modification before the 1993 election’ (Miller and Catt, 1993: p.181).
For the 1993 general election, the Alliance stood on much the same NLP-type platform as they had in the previous by-elections: increased social expenditure and taxation, and the re-purchase of previously state-owned assets. However, perhaps learning a lesson from the by-elections, the Alliance electoral machine became a lot more aggressive in the election campaign, concentrating more on attacking their opposition, than on pushing their own policies. ‘We won’t sell out’ was the election slogan and indictment of the two main parties. However, in this, it appeared that the Alliance was shifting towards an emphasis on political style at the expense of political substance.
Just as the NLP had offered the electorate a well-developed and elaborate manifesto for the 1990 election, the Alliance formulated a host of comprehensive policies. Yet only a highly summarised version of this was published. The 34 page, A5 sized booklet (pictured on the right), although heavy on imagery and personalities, was very thin on policy — only 14 of its pages dealing with this. Such a brief and glossy manifesto contrasted sharply with the NLP’s labour-red photocopied 86 page 1990 manifesto. The production of a shorter manifesto parallels the Labour Party’s 1928 decision to distribute a smaller manifesto, after the problems they incurred in 1925 with the controversy over their land nationalisation policy, and their subsequent electoral decline: ‘Brevity, the Party had concluded, was an electoral virtue — particularly on land policy’ (Brown, 1962: p.98).
Although the Alliance printed and distributed 500,000 of its manifestos, the full policy was virtually unavailable for public inspection. This appeared ironic, in that part of the NLP/Alliance claim against the main two parties was that they had, when in government, implemented hidden manifestos. This could, not unjustifiably, give credence to a claim that the Alliance was itself attempting to conceal its more radical policies from the view of both its increasingly hostile opponents, and an electorate easily scared by ideologically extreme policies, economic instability, and increases in their personal tax.
The Alliance performed well in the election – winning 18.2% of the vote and gaining another electorate seat with the election of Sandra Lee (pictured on the right) to Auckland Central. The temporary ‘hung parliament’ that initially appeared to have been produced by the election result provided an opportunity for the Alliance, and Anderton in particular, to show the electorate that the Alliance was a ‘responsible’ movement, and that it was willing to put aside political gain for the ‘stability of the nation’. It did this by promising to support the right of the National Party to govern because it had the largest vote (35.1% vs Labour’s 34.7%). As well as the public trust that this was likely to encourage for the Alliance, it was also in the organisation’s interests to help produce the stability that would prevent another election. As Alliance education spokesperson, Liz Gordon, has spelt out:
Style over substance
The post-election turmoil had the effect of making Jim Anderton into somewhat of a statesman: ‘Here was no raving left-wing lunatic, but a warm and responsible political leader, who, with every word and gesture, exuded calm and confidence’ (Trotter, 1994b: p.19). In the aftermath of the election Anderton spent considerable effort reassuring the financial markets. This was a popular move, suggesting that the Alliance and the financial markets were now taking each other more seriously.
After the 1993 election, the Alliance was even less concerned to emphasise its policy dimension, preferring instead to concentrate on its political style. This, in itself, was essentially a shift to the right, presumably indicating an increasing vacuousness in terms of policy principles. It reflected the fact that the Alliance partners had found that political style was an easier ground for commonality than political substance. In the face of the parties’ political differences, style had been a feature that the Alliance parties have been more readily able to alter in their own organisation. According to Colin James:
The shifting emphasis from political substance to style was indicative of the Alliance’s transformation into an electoral machine, and the emergence of a technocratic element amongst the leadership. But this move from an emphasis on political substance to political style also reflected the fact that the Alliance could more easily win support on their rejection of the political style of contemporary parliamentary politics than in their offer of an NLP-type economic policy. Projecting an alternative political style would be less open to attack than putting forward an alternative economic strategy. Here the Alliance was picking up on another component of the public’s disenchantment with the two main parties:
How the two main political parties had acted in the last decade was an issue of contention for many voters of varying political beliefs. There were certain expectations in New Zealand’s political culture:
The Alliance therefore sought to appeal to New Zealanders’ sense of betrayal by the dominant political culture, offering a return to the courtship ritual between parties and electors. Their approach was to offer a style of politics that entailed manifestos, openness, political trust, a bottom-up approach to reforms, and in general a cooperative approach.
However, as pointed out in the last post, mixed with this ‘principled’ type of politics, was a certain pragmatism. The NLP had learnt the lesson not to appear too doctrinaire or idealistic. Therefore the Alliance sought to turn the contradictions of ‘principle and pragmatism’ into a unique combination: not too pragmatic (like National and Labour), and not too principled or idealistic (like the NewLabour Party). So, although the Alliance was essentially a product of the first-past-the-post electoral system, it attempted to position itself to benefit from the consensus-style mood brought about by the shift into the MMP era.
Consolidating the leadership
While the election result of 1990 was a major turning point for the NLP, disrupting the direction of the party, the 1993 election result worked in favour of the existing internal Alliance relationship, consolidating the position of the leadership and the involvement of all five parties. As Harrop and Miller have pointed out: ‘After an election, parties digest the lessons of the ballot box. An election defeat stimulates changes in leadership, organisation and policies; a victory encourages complacency — leaders and policies stay the same as before’ (Harrop and Miller, 1987: p.268).
The post-1993 success of the Alliance, along with the huge increase in Anderton’s personal popularity, suggests that the possibility of an Anderton-led party replacing the old Labour Party as the main opposition was no longer as inconceivable as it once appeared. The NLP’s alliance with the other minor parties, although a different route to the one initially conceived by Anderton, has therefore proved a successful strategy in this new political era. It stood as an exemplar of the re-working and realignment of modern partisan politics.
Next blog post: A shift to the right in economic policy