(First published in The Dominion Post, October 3.)
I WONDER, was this the most demoralising election result ever for the New Zealand left?There was an excited buzz in the left-wing blogosphere and in social media in the weeks leading up to the election. There seemed to be a sense that victory was in their grasp, even when the polls suggested otherwise. But they were cruelly deceived.
Their optimism is easily explained. In the early stages of the campaign, they saw the fallout from Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics dominating the news bulletins night after night.After that firestorm had abated, the media turned its attention to Kim Dotcom’s Moment of Truth, with its dazzling line-up of high-profile journalists and leakers from overseas, all eager to tell us how morally bankrupt our government was.
Those on the left observed the adulation heaped on Hager, who was lionised at speaking engagements. They thrilled at the big turnouts attracted by Dotcom and his incongruous handmaiden, Laila Harré. And they deduced from all this that an unstoppable momentum was building, the inevitable result of which would be the unceremonious dispatch of the Key government.They were wrong. It was a massive indulgence in wishful thinking, and it must have made the left’s defeat even more crushing psychologically.
How could they have been so misled? That’s easy to explain too.Consider the enthusiastic capacity crowd at Dotcom’s Moment of Truth event and the full halls he addressed on his barnstorming campaign through the country. The left interpreted this as evidence of an irresistible groundswell of discontent, when it was nothing of the sort.
Someone as novel and entertaining as Dotcom was bound to attract crowds, especially in provincial centres where not much happens. In any case, there are always enough true believers to fill halls and give the impression something big is afoot.Alas, it was all an illusion. The great mass of New Zealanders, the Joe Average types who determine election results, were unmoved. They watched the overheated news coverage on television, read the headlines and marvelled at the unpleasantness of it all. Then, on September 20, they went into the ballot booths and voted National.
Now the left is in disarray, as is obvious from the painful recriminations within the Labour Party. David Cunliffe inevitably became the scapegoat for Labour’s humiliation even though he ran a tolerably good campaign.Ironically, the controversy over Dirty Politics and allegations of illegal state surveillance, all of which should have been helpful to Labour, deprived Cunliffe of the opportunity to articulate the party’s policies on issues closer to the concerns of ordinary people.
The question now is whether Labour can recover from its self-evisceration in time to mount a credible challenge in 2017. When a veteran loyalist like Sir Bob Harvey is questioning whether the party should do away with its traditional red and even consider changing its name, there’s clearly a deep identity crisis to be resolved.Labour still hasn’t determined whether it’s a party of the blue-collar working class (think South Auckland) or of the university-educated, inner city-dwelling liberal left (think Mt Victoria).
The Greens are licking their wounds too. They worked hard to make themselves more palatable to the wider electorate. They mounted an effective campaign and seemed supremely confident that this would be their moment, but the voters had other ideas. The Greens’ message didn’t seem to resonate beyond their core supporters.They too must now withdraw to figure out how it all went so wrong. Small wonder that we’ve heard barely a peep from them since election night.
Internet-Mana is deservedly history. Never has a new party made so much noise for so little reward.Will Harré and John Minto get the message and ride off into the sunset? Somehow I doubt it. Zealots don’t give up easily; they are sustained by an overwhelming sense of righteousness and rationalise defeat by convincing themselves that their fellow citizens are either suckers or knaves.
The net effect of the election result is that the New Zealand left must contemplate the unpalatable possibility that it is now irrelevant. The noisy activists and ideologues who used up much of the oxygen during the election campaign have been exposed as hopelessly out of touch with the reality of most New Zealanders’ lives.They will of course continue shouting in their own echo chamber. That’s what they do. But after the drubbing of September 20, it will be a long time before they convince anyone that they have a message worth listening to.