The mainstream media has the 2017 election worked out: Winston Peters is kingmaker already. The only question is, “will he go with National or Labour?”
For not the first time, this narrative has been challenged by NBR political columnist Matthew Hooton. In his most recent column, Hooton proposes an alternative scenario that would see Peters become the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Hooton argues that a resurgent NZ First could undermine Labour’s status as a major party. In the Hooton-NBR scenario, NZ First gains support at the expense of Labour. The two parties come within a few percentage points of each other.
With less than a quarter of the vote, Labour is deprived of its leader who is a list-only candidate. According to Hooton, these conditions are “readymade” for Winston Peters to lead a government with Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw.
The scenario outlined above may seem fanciful. Almost everyone assumes that, sooner or later, the electorate will tire of National and elect a Labour government. That is the pattern our politics have followed for nearly 70 years. MMP didn’t change it.
The trajectory of Labour over the past decade should lead one to question this assumption, however. In 2011, Phil Goff led Labour to what was then its worst defeat since 1928. Its vote collapsed from 34% to 27.5%. The Greens and NZ First surged. Then in 2014, the Labour vote declined even further.
The country’s oldest political party now goes into the 2017 election with a base of just 25%. On recent polling, Labour only expects to get around 30% in September. As I wrote last week, any centre-left government would necessitate a three-way power sharing agreement, for which there is no real precedent in New Zealand political history.
Of course, the mainstream media assumes Labour will get 30%. This is where I think Hooton is on to something far more substantial than Winston Peters’ ambitions for high office. Hooton is suggesting the electoral decline of Labour will continue.
That would confirm a long-term trend. And it could lead to a permanent realignment in our party system.The last time we had such a realignment was in 1935, when the First Labour Government was elected. It forced the parties of the centre-right, Reform and United, to merge into the modern National Party.
How poetic would it be for a former National Party cabinet minister to lead the last Labour government?