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Rise and fall of the New Zealand Alliance Party

JULY’S ELECTION saw New Zealand’s Labour Party returned to power in a new coalition government. Their partners this time include the populist right-wing United Future Party (UFP). The National Party, the traditional big business party, polled just 21%, its worst ever election result.

The clear hostility to the establishment parties, however, means that no party has a solid base, with all having experienced sharp fluctuations in support. Abstention rates reached 22% while 38% of the electorate voted for an array of smaller parties. To the ‘left’ of Labour, the Green Party scored 6%. The Alliance Party though, for many years presented as a left alternative to Labour, failed to win a seat.

Ten years ago, many on the left internationally looked to the Alliance as a model for the development of new left formations. So how did it come to suffer such a significant defeat?

The origins of the Alliance lie in the profound shift to the right by the Labour Party leadership in the 1980s. Following a deep economic recession, Labour won office in 1984. Rather than introducing policies to better the conditions of the working class, however, the Labour administration followed the Thatcher and Reagan ‘free market revolution’. State-owned resources were sold off and unemployment and poverty rose. After six years in power the party was decimated in the October 1990 elections, holding only 28 of its 97 seats, with the National Party victorious.

If 1990 saw the bitter harvest of Labour’s betrayals, it also witnessed the rise of ‘left alternative’ protest parties and formations. New Labour, which had split from Labour eighteen months earlier, polled 5.2%. The new party, led by veteran left Labour MP Jim Anderton and claiming over 4,000 members, called for public ownership, progressive taxation and full employment. The Greens won 6.3%, the Democrats (supported by small farmers, small businessmen and some workers) 1.7%, and the radical Maori-based party, Manu Motuhake, 5.2%.

These relatively modest but important results acted as a powerful impetus towards creating some larger coalition. A post-election multi-party conference took place in 1991 and later that year the Alliance Party was established, with five constituent parties: the Democrats, Manu Motuhake, New Labour, the Green Party, and the Liberals, a splinter from the Nationals. This "new movement was unprecedented", the Alliance founders proclaimed. "Nowhere in the English-speaking Western world had such a significant force arisen on the left of the political spectrum".

From the start, however, the Alliance was not a clearly defined socialist party. Its component parts represented a variety of class and sectional interests. Its three ‘general principles’ – more government intervention in opposition to extreme neo-liberalism, disillusionment with the ‘political system and culture’ created by the big capitalist parties, and the need to get rid of the first-past-the-post (FFP) electoral system – for a time could generally unite the disparate groups and even mean electoral breakthroughs. But they did not prepare the Alliance for the events to come.

Early electoral success for the Alliance arrived in 1992, when it came within a few hundred votes of victory over the Nationals in the Tamaki parliamentary by-election. Eight months later, the Alliance gained 42% support and control of the regional government in Auckland. Then, in the 1993 general election, it scored an impressive 18.7%, when the very unpopular National Party barely retained power. The FFP electoral system, however, meant that it won only two seats in parliament.

The Alliance played a central role in the referendum contests that saw over half the population vote for a new mixed-member proportional representation system (MMP), despite opposition from big business and the two main parties. But the subsequent election fought under the new system in 1996 proved to be a turning point.

The new system allowed the Alliance to increase its seats from two to 13 in 1996, but its overall vote dropped sharply to 10.3%. The Alliance leaders blamed this on the populist, racist appeal of the New Zealand First party, led by Winston Peters. The right-wing opportunism of NZ First, however, could only be contested with a clear socialist programme that put the blame for social and economic crisis where it belongs – at the feet of the capitalists – to cut across the appeal of the right’s demagogy. The reality was that the Alliance was beginning to lose momentum because its limited policies and programme were revealing themselves to working-class people and middle layers in society as being incapable of solving their problems.

Moreover, the idea of sharing power with the still neo-liberal Labour Party, which the Alliance leaders proposed, added to this perception. Instead of offering itself as a prop to the Labour leaders, the Alliance should have struck out independently with socialist ideas. By the mid-1990s the Labour Party was in a state of virtual collapse, having lost thousands of members in disgust over its pro-capitalist policies and polling only slightly above the Alliance. With an appeal to ex-Labour and Labour supporters to join the Alliance on a fighting programme that maintained all the best traditions of the Labour Party, a mass workers’ party could have come into existence. Given the more advantageous MMP system, the Alliance could have become a serious challenger to the two main bosses’ parties. Unfortunately, however, a brilliant opportunity to build a serious socialist force was lost. Stepping into the vacuum, NZ First emerged from the 1996 elections with 17 MPs and holding the balance of power.

As the smaller parties support stagnated or fell Labour began a makeover to re-win popularity, adopting slightly more ‘left’ rhetoric. The failure to capitalise on its early promise led to increased disputes within the Alliance. Two Alliance MPs defected and in 1999 the Green Party decided to go it alone.

The coalition of distinct political parties that had characterised the Alliance really came to a formal end a little later when New Labour dissolved itself. The urge for a new accommodation with the Labour leaders, as the only ‘viable’ route to government, meant in practice the dropping of all meaningful opposition to neo-liberal policies. A ‘truce on the left’ was declared. In 1998, the Labour leader, Helen Clarke, addressed the Alliance conference and delegates voted unanimously to enter a ‘loose’ coalition with Labour in government. By 1999, the relationship with Labour was described by the Alliance leaders as being ‘thoroughly repaired’. During this time, Labour support steadily rose, as many workers saw it as the only hope to end the National Party government. This success did not rub off on the Alliance, however, whose support fell away as quickly as the party leaders shed their former radical image.

In the 1999 general election the Labour Party won 38.7%, boosted by Clarke’s limited pledges to increase spending on health and education and to reverse some of the Nationals worst neo-liberal policies. The Alliance, on the other hand, won only 7.7%, with ten seats. The Greens also managed to get over the 5% threshold and won seven seats. Labour and the Alliance formed a coalition government with Green support which the Alliance leaders claimed represented ‘the first leftwing government in NZ since 1972’.

The Labour/Alliance coalition government, however, was anything but a ‘leftwing’ or progressive administration. Initially, some small reforms were made, for example, re-nationalising accident compensation, lifting the minimum wage and making state-controlled rents based more on means. Even these modest measures alarmed the boardrooms, however, and soon the government was put in its place by big business.

In the Alliance a split developed over the government decision to offer NZ troops to back up Bush’s war on terror in Afghanistan, with Jim Anderton leading the majority of Alliance MPs into a new group called the Progressive Coalition. Yet this dispute did not reach the level of principles or ideology. Both the Alliance and the Progressive Coalition promised to be ‘responsible’ partners in a future Labour government on entering the July general election race. In the event, the Progressive Coalition won two seats (with 1.8% of the vote), including Anderton, while the Alliance proper won only 1.2% of the vote and is not represented in parliament. The smaller right-wing parties successfully exploited the vacuum created with a populist rhetoric that appeared to many electors to address the pressing social and economic issues.

Within ten years, the promise of a new left party in New Zealand with a mass following making its way to power has been turned to dust. Responsibility lies not with the working class and radical youth, who indicated in poll after poll in the mid-1990s that they were prepared to back a credible left alternative to the ‘New Right’ and Labour, but with the Alliance leaders, who failed to put forward a socialist programme. They wanted to square the circle by attending to the interests of workers and at the same time those of big business. When this inevitably failed, they drew the completely wrong lessons and stampeded towards the crowded ‘centre ground’ of politics.

For new left formations to succeed they must first and foremost put forward a socialist programme attractive to the poor, to those in work, to women, to youth and to the most oppressed, and also to the small business people and farmers who face ruin under capitalism. They must build an independent position, without relying on parties representing big business, and offer an open, democratic structure if they are to win over the active participation of youth and trade unionists.

The polarisation between the right and left in New Zealand society and the big loss of support for traditional pro-capitalist establishment parties signifies profound changes. An opposition mood will develop to the Clarke government, which at a certain point can mean the creation of a new left opposition. Providing the lessons of the Alliance experience are fully assimilated, it can become an alternative to both the big parties of the bosses and the right-wing demagogues.

Labour & the Alliance: general election results





November 1993*








October 1996








November 1999








July 2002








* Held under the first-past-the-post system.



Niall Mulholland


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