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How to understand New Zealand's political tribes

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In New Zealand politics, small groups often exert more influence than large tribes.

To comprehend the political tribes, it helps to look at their members as akin to fanatical sports followers, and then imagine the fanaticism multiplying over decades, maybe even centuries.

In a recent clash during Question Time in the House of Commons, a Labour MP accused a Conservative minister of being opposed to the National Health Service. “You voted against it 22 times!” he fumed.

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As the Daily Telegraph’s Michael Deacon observed, the word “you” said it all. Only a handful of Conservative MPs are alive who were even born when the party voted against the NHS. The party’s membership has been multiply renewed, so that barely a homeopathic trace remains of those 1940s NHS opponents in the Tory ranks. But to the tribal Labourite, it was as if the 22 votes had happened yesterday.

This, Deacon observed, is exactly how it works in British football. “Without batting an eyelid, a football fan can say that ‘we’ won the cup final in 1946 – even though he himself played no part in his team’s victory, and may not have been born till decades later. Similarly, he can taunt the fan of a rival team by saying that ‘you’ lost the cup final in 1946 – even though that fan played no part in his team’s defeat, and may not have been born till decades later.”

Thus tribalism transcends the notions of time and direct responsibility. Deacon speculated on whether, when he went for a medical check-up, the aggrieved Labour MP went all “you!” on his GP, since doctors also voted against the NHS in 1946.

Political tribalism is also a great debaser of language. Tory, a jaunty sort of nickname in some quarters for conservatives, is a vicious insult in others; “progressive” and “liberal”, once aspirational or at least neutral terms, might now be spat like swear words.

Even the concept of democracy takes a semantic hammering: some in politics reserve the word “mainstream” as their most damning epithet for those who disagree with their views.

Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

The terminology may change with the times, but identifying the big political iwi in this country is generally simple. Some voters are habitually swinging, but others have fixed allegiances: farmers and businesses most often default to National, and middle-earning white-collar workers, public servants and the low-paid gravitate to Labour. Each group is seeking the best deal for its circumstances.

There are big hapū within these: the red Greens want social change with their planet-saving and the green Greens are in it solely for the environment.

But most unpredictable are the much smaller groupings, the political whānau. Many are largely the creation of marketers and/or political strategists trying to get to grips with ever-changing attitudinal shifts. These were the people who gave us Dinkies (for a couple with a double income and no kids) and discovered the Pink Dollar (gay individuals and couples with well-paying jobs and no children).

Though some change the course of history, few last. As National leader, John Key had a popularity that appeared to defy gravity and there was a scramble to identify the new tribelets of women who were now supporting National in such large numbers after the years of solid female support that had ballasted Helen Clark’s premiership. A new tribe often furtively described by politicos trying to understand moneyed support for the Greens is “the doctors’ wives”.

But the most beguiling groups are those that spring up idiosyncratically, usually thanks to a strong personality or two, and sometimes a zeitgeist as well, and make a big difference. In the 1980s, Auckland’s Pakuranga and East Coast Bays were, in the parlance of the times, either already in the white-shoe, gold Merc category, or vertiginously upwardly mobile. Yet for a period, the two electorates were represented by Democrats, the recently renamed Social Credit Party, popularly depicted as driving Skodas, wearing Crimplene suits and having opaque theories about the money supply.

Disillusionment with the Muldoon-era National Party and hunger to break the National-Labour duopoly coincided with the fiery campaigning of Socred veteran Bruce Beetham on the 1984 hustings. Beetham so kindled an appetite for a third way that Garry Knapp held East Coast Bays and Neil Morrison won Pakuranga for an eventful term.

John Key. Photo/Getty Images

In 1987, the seats reverted to National, but the novelty and historical significance of these electorates choosing non-National/Labour MPs helped fuel momentum toward electoral reform, which had been a key Democrat policy. Its hard-won success gave the Democrat movement the chops to survive into the MMP era, by joining the Alliance coalition of parties. It’s been 16 years since a Democrat sat in Parliament, but the party still exists.

The longest tentacles of influence, though, surely snaked out of the Labour Party’s Princes Street branch. These days it’s just another district grouping of the faithful. But through the 1970s and 1980s, it had the reputation of the beating heart, pulse and left brain of the party.

Princes Street produced a string of political stars and backroom heavy-hitters, including Helen Clark, Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Jonathan Hunt and Phil Goff. Those who emerged from its flaming crucible were assumed to have the Right Stuff. This reputation did not survive the fallout over Rogernomics, but Princes Street nevertheless survived that era’s deregulations, and many of the Clark Government’s social and legal reforms.

Princes Street had a more mild-mannered counterpart in Wellington: the Wadestown liberals – or Wadestown Wadicals as the less sympathetic termed the mobilising forces in the leafy dress-circle suburb. These were primarily 1970s public servants and white-collar workers newly politicised by their dismay at the strong-arm governance of Robert Muldoon. The Roger Hall satire Gliding On was not enough therapy, and they took to the Labour Party in numbers.

That tribe might now appear vestigial, but it’s noteworthy that Wellington Central, one of the country’s wealthiest electorates, is the only seat in such a high-income bracket to usually return a Labour MP. And in Ohariu, which took much of Wadestown in the 2014 electoral boundary changes, the incumbent Peter Dunne’s majority was reduced by roughly the number of people in Wadestown. At last year’s election the early polling of the Labour candidate persuaded the veteran United Future man to throw in the towel.

But the current microtribe with the influence hotline is the Grey Lynn Luvvies, a long-standing Labour-Green cohort in the gentrified inner-Auckland suburb and its environs. They got their nickname – patronising or affectionate depending on who’s speaking – from being devoted supporters of Clark. Typically they, like her, loved the arts and championed rainbow and other equal-rights causes. Being heavily represented in the arts and the media, the Luvvies had an enduring and resonant reach and they embraced Jacinda Ardern as one of their kind long before her name was mentioned in the leadership stakes.

Though they’re now divided, and sometimes torn, between supporting Labour or voting Green, their influence was most emblematically shown in last week’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, which include the Prostitutes’ Collective organiser Catherine Healy and entertainers the Topp Twins. Not even the feared Princes Street branch could have pulled off a double coup like Dame Camp Leader and Dame Camp Mother.

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.