There is a lot of talk in the media at the moment about a New Zealand First comeback. This is because some recent opinion polls have indicated that the party has public support in the range of 3-6%, suggesting that the party might make a return to Parliament in the 2011 general election, and thereby be a significant force in deciding whether Labour or National will get to lead the next government. But is there actually a political-electoral space for Peters and his party? Does anyone really want to buy what Winston Peters is selling? This is an open question, and so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether NZ First will be victorious in its quest to return to Parliament next year. The party will obviously need to cross the crucial 5% threshold to do so, but according to iPredict the party is currently predicted to win 5.0% of the party vote in next year’s election, although somewhat paradoxically, the iPredict market also currently says that there is only a 31% chance that Winston Peters will be back in Parliament (see here). This blog post discusses these issues and also reports on the state of New Zealand First with some information from a party insider. [Read more below]
The organisational barriers for Peters
There are a number of barriers for Winston Peters and his party to get over in order to be a potential player in next year’s general election. The first one is simply that he and his party are no longer in Parliament. The incumbency factor is very strong in the New Zealand political system, especially because of the 5% threshold required to get into Parliament, but also because of the parliamentary funds and resources that incumbents have to wield.
Not only do the other parliamentary parties have millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded budgets at their disposal that they can effectively use for electioneering (with very few limitations), but the parliamentary debating chamber and culture lends itself to media exposure and public credibility for incumbents. As one journalist has put it, ‘Peters hasn't had much media space and he doesn't have the debating chamber to get himself into the news, a stage he used so effectively in the past’. Also, ‘it is really difficult for any party that has disappeared from Parliament to fight its way back in and one of the reasons is that the system favours the incumbents. Those that are represented are in the same place as the press gallery, they have instant and personal access to the media’ (see: Peters will need all his skills to make a comeback). For these reasons, it’s notable that throughout New Zealand’s experience of MMP there has only been one case of a political party making it into Parliament without already having an incumbent in Parliament (i.e. the Act Party in 1996).
The ideological barriers for Peters
There are also some ideological reasons that New Zealand First might struggle to regain relevancy. Although some commentators argue over the appropriate classification of the party on the left-right spectrum, Peters has certainly always attempted to strategically position his party between Labour and National in order to be able to coalesce with either party (and he managed to achieve this, involving New Zealand First in governments led by both major parties). The problem is that being a centrist party – i.e. aiming to position itself in the middle of the political spectrum – is very difficult in 2010 when that part of the spectrum is already so incredibly crowded.
This was also a problem at the last election when NZ First primarily campaigned against the extremism of National, ignoring the fact that National had shifted back towards the centre, meaning that ideologically New Zealand First had less reason to exist. The moderate, populist and more nationalistic National Party left little ideological space for a party that had broken away from National in the 1990s because of its perceived extremism.
And increasingly all the other parties have a very strong centrist element to them – from the Greens through to Act, they all aim to be seen as moderate, reasonable and respectable. Moreover, added to this centrism of all the parties, is an attempt to push messages of “clean politics”, nationalism and xenophobia. Thus the Greens, Act, Labour and National are already selling themselves with the same policies that NZ First has traditionally made its pitch with. So it will not be so easy for a centrist, nationalist, populist party to differentiate itself from even the Green Party (which has increasingly sought to pick up discarded NZ First “angry votes”).
Issues for NZF to campaign on
Nonetheless, there are a few salient issues that the other mainstream parties have ignored, that NZ First will be able to campaign on. After all, the current parliamentary parties have just about built an elite consensus on a number of issues that does not mirror a societal consensus. There are especially a lot of other non-economic areas that NZ First could campaign on and get traction. Chris Trotter was reported on this in the Sunday Star Times (See: Peters the kingmaker again):
Left-leaning commentator Chris Trotter said he suspected much of the support New Zealand First had gained was probably direct from National in protest against the Marine and Coastal (Takutai Moana) Area Bill. "Winston, far more than Act, is a natural repository for that protest vote, and clearly it's a lot of that soft vote that National took from New Zealand First and Labour drifting back. National will be very worried."
This point is reinforced by an NZPA article on Peters and NZ First:
the election campaign will increase his exposure to voters, and he is sure to find issues which attract attention and attract those who are disenchanted with the policies and performance of the main parties. He is very good at finding itches to scratch, and as an attack politician he still has no peer. In the speeches he has made this year, among the dominant themes have been the sale of land to foreigners and the legislation to replace the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Both are emotive, and the foreshore issue is already causing problems for the Maori Party and National. It is something that is going to reach its peak around the middle of next year, a few months from the election, and it could give Peters enough oxygen to gain the attention he needs to make an impact.
In 2008 the party campaigned with an election slogan of ‘Protect and Save Your New Zealand’, and it’s quite likely that they will run with a similar theme next year, with sub-slogans about saving the beaches etc.
So despite being mostly a centrist party, there are actually a number of non-centrist issues that NZ First are likely to push. Certainly in the past, despite its centrist position vis-à-vis the major parties, New Zealand First has adopted some radical and non-centrist political positions that might be seen to sit firmly on either side of the centre of politics. For example, a more leftish character can be seen in its opposition to much of the neo-liberal economic framework established by Labour and National since 1984, together with an economically protectionist stance, particularly in terms of the sale of state assets to foreign buyers. We can expect to see more of this economic nationalism and populism.
The NZPA article on Peters also points out that while all the other minor parties increasingly have very blurred ‘brands’, Winston Peters still nicely personifies what NZ First is about:
Peters does have a unique advantage over the rest, however. While most voters wouldn't be able to name the leaders of parties that aren't in Parliament, he still has very high name recognition and he is still a powerful personality.
He is also much more effective at forcing the media to take notice of him, and will almost certainly have some explosives to detonate during the campaign.
So once Winston Peters will be able to play the outsider and underdog. And if the party is able to retain support in opinion polls around 3-6% then the party will gain from what some political scientists call the ‘underdog’ and ‘facilitating’ effects whereby voters are more inclined to vote for such minor parties because of their fledgling but possibly successful nature.
Inside information on NZ First
Recently, a political insider who is close to New Zealand First passed onto me their analysis of the state of, and prospects for, New Zealand First. This is what they had to say:
- New Zealand First organisationally is in good shape: there are a lot of members and active branches all over the country, some of which are very active in grassroots fundraising. As expected, most of these people are over 50. They are not all pensioners, but the party's active membership is near entirely post-middle age
- The party is very seriously contesting the 2011 elections and is beginning candidate selection - there has not been an exodus of talented people
- There is organisational rigour within the party: the Board does stand up against senior party figures, has a lot of internal authority and is taken seriously. There are lively internal debates and lively internal contests over policy, strategy and internal party elections
- The aged and unwell President, George Groombridge, stood down in favour of a younger guy Kevin Gardiner
- What's most interesting is that young members are being recruited all over the country, including some pretty talented young Maori and Pacific Islanders (and Pakeha too)
- The talk of a campus network/Young New Zealand First in the media by Winston Peters recently is actually serious - with recently joined young people in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin getting these organisations set up. In particular, the party has managed to build a functioning branch at Auckland University that has recruited some good people on board already - including Indians and Asians!
- What is also interesting is that as expected, party figures like Peter Brown, Ron Mark, Dail Jones & Doug Woolerton appear to no longer be involved.
- Most interestingly the party is trying to strategically target both younger voters and Maori in the upcoming elections.
- The repositioning is in more than just form: there is, right now, a shift away from social conservative issues to more social democratic left conservatism/red toryism concerns - which I believe is part of a broader historical process within the party. While they will still talk about immigration and various other bread-and-butter NZF issues, economic populism will definitely be a big focus of the campaign - as may be evident from a lot of their press releases over recent months.
While I don’t have any verification of it, it’s very interesting to read that NZ First is attempting to widen its appeal to include an ‘age alliance’ of young and retired voters. Ex-NZ First ministerial staffer Damien Edwards said that the party tried to do a similar thing back in the 2008 campaign:
[the party] also tried to tap into two new sources of support – younger voters and the Pacific community. The party had observed the effectiveness of Winston Peters celebrity status in drawing large crowds of younger people in the past and now tried to turn this into votes by touring university campuses, and appearing on student radio and alternative television, with a “save your grandma” campaign. (Edwards, 2010: pp.117-118).
While such a young-old voter alliance might seem unlikely, it’s worth remember that Winston Peters forged an equally unlikely voter base together in the 1990s, drawing in support from elderly pakeha as well as Maori. Most notably, in 1996 the party achieved the historically momentous feat of winning the then five Maori seats off Labour.
In 2011 it’s far from certain that NZ First will find parliamentary representation, but there’s obviously a significant chance of it happening. And it has to be remembered that of all the parliamentary parties, New Zealand First’s 2008 election campaign was actually one of the most impressive and successful. Obviously the party failed to make it back into Parliament, yet it only just missed out, managing to elevate its public support up from within the ‘margin of error’ of the opinion polls, to 4.1 per cent. The party obtained the fourth highest party vote, and was only denied representation in the new Parliament because of the exclusionary and undemocratic five per cent MMP threshold. New Zealand First actually won a greater proportion of the party vote than both the Act Party and the Maori Party. Therefore, in a sense, to talk of a ‘comeback’ is a bit of a misnomer – in terms of electoral popularity, the party has never entirely been away.