Labour and the moral high ground

Since Andrew Little began his tightrope walk regarding whether Northland voters should or shouldn’t vote Labour, there has been much philosophising as to whether a “dirty deal” did or did not go down.

To my mind, quite clearly, no deal occurred. A deal requires some form of reciprocity. It requires agreement between parties. In Epsom, over the last few elections, a fair amount of conversation obviously went on between National and ACT; in 2011, the stage-managed “cup of tea” made it perfectly clear that a deal had been done.

In Northland, however, Labour’s actions were unilateral (unless some extremely surreptitious and plausibly deniable discussions occurred, that will only surface in a decade’s time in someone’s political autobiography). Labour realised they had no show of winning, figured Winston had reasonable odds of severely embarrassing National, and changed their message to give him the best possible shot. Serendipitous for Winston, but not something he had sought.

Nonetheless, given Labour’s (in)actions in Northland, can they continue to claim a moral high ground when, in 2017, National again gives David Seymour and/or Peter Dunne a free ride in their respective electorates?

Many journalists, commentators and, of course, Right-aligned bloggers, have been happily labelling Andrew Little a hypocrite. Moral high ground lost. The right to lambast National for Epsom-style deals gone forevermore.

Such analysis has, predictably, enraged many of the good folk over at The Standard (see ‘By-elections are FPP‘), while others on the Left such as Rob Salmond and Danyl Mclauchlan provide their reasoning as to why Northland and Epsom are Different. As Mr Salmond writes:

Here are three core differences:

  1. Labour was never going to win Northland, whereas National could win Epsom just by clicking its fingers. Labour’s motivation is to engineer a loss for its major opponent, while National is trying to engineer a loss for itself. Which of those do you think is more legitimate in a competitive environment?
  2. Labour’s actions in Northland were quarantined to Northland only. They only affected who is the MP for Northland. National’s deals, on the other hand, are specifically designed to work around New Zealand’s rules about proportionality. National’s deals try to engineer a 5-for-1 deal on ACT MPs (which is exactly what they got in 2008.) National’s deals rort MMP; Labour’s avoid FPP vote-splitting. Those are not the same thing.
  3. Labour’s actions were unilateral. Labour did not receive any assurance of anything from Peters before making the call to change tack. Labour looked at the facts on the ground, and changed its plan accordingly. National, by contrast, makes a big show of obtaining a quid pro quo in advance. Labour had a strategy; National made a deal.

Personally, I agree with the reasoning of Salmond, Mclauchlan and Bunji at The Standard. Yes, by-elections are FPP. Yes, there was no “deal”. Yes, Northland was never Labour’s to win. Northland and Epsom are indeed different.

The problem though is that, at a glance, they also look suspiciously similar. Which is why Gower and Garner et al are so easily able to characterise Labour’s actions as hypocrisy. And explaining is losing.

For those who care, the distinction between Northland and Epsom is patently obvious. To the casual by-stander though, Labour and National are just as bad as each other. And no amount of explanatory blogposts are likely to change that…

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