How Labour Won in 1996 – How Helen Clark was not Michael Foot

Several days ago I received a link to a story about an aborted coup against Helen Clark by Labour Party right-wingers in 1996.  Titled, ‘The Anatomy of a Failed Labour Coup‘ it was written by former Labour Party staffer Phil Quin and published in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 2 April. Quin was an inside member of the Labour Party’s right faction and his description of the aborted coup against Clark was an interesting account of that part of Labour Party history.

It had the effect of setting me thinking about the various strengths that Clark had and also of the importance of her role as leader of the Labour Party in that period. 

I have felt that Labour’s predicament in the mid 1990s could be readily compared to that of its UK counterpart in the mid 1980s.  Both had lost seminal elections twice, NZ Labour in 1990 and 1993 and UK Labour in 1979 and 1983, both were seen as having lost significant support and direction, both lacked credibility and both were seen as lacking determined and dedicated leadership.  What was important for UK Labour in 1987 was that it re-established itself as the second party in United Kingdom politics.  In 1983, it had been strongly challenged by the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which had come within two percentage points of overtaking Labour’s vote in the General Election.  Labour still had a large number of seats in the UK Parliament due to the First Past the Post Electoral system, but lacked credibility.  In 1987, Labour had to convincingly defeat the SDP-Liberal Alliance to retain its status as the major opposition party.  In doing so it would allow its new leader, Neil Kinnock the ability to cement himself as an alternative Prime Minister to Margaret Thatcher and thereby reinforce the perception that Labour was the alternative Government.   

In 1996, Labour in New Zealand had to do the same.  In 1993, Labour had simply been outdone on a number of fronts in terms of direction and credibility.  While, the particularities of First Past the Post may have meant that Labour, as had its 1983 UK counterpart, gained more seats in Parliament, there was little debate as to the fact that it had been beaten in seeking voter’s hearts and minds by the Alliance and New Zealand First. Added to this was Moore’s, some might say, ‘unhinged’ behaviour on election night in 1993.  If UK Labour’s 1983 Manifesto has been labelled as the world’s longest ‘suicide note,’ Moore’s rambling incoherent speech conceding defeat in which he blamed everyone else for Labour’s failure, combined with references to a ‘long dark night’ was, without doubt, New Zealand’s longest political suicide speech.  It was in those moments that Moore cemented his fate as Labour Party leader. 

In comparison, Jim Anderton’s political behaviour in the aftermath of the 1993 election, especially when compared with Moore’s, saw him being lauded.  Jim’s status was upgraded to statesman.  And, for a brief few months, James Patrick Anderton was the preferred Prime Minister of a significant number of New Zealanders. Labour slumped in the polls. 

Given those circumstances, Helen Clark had to take over the reins of the Labour Party. She was the only plausible option. 

But, unlike, Michael Foot who stood aside for Neil Kinnock, Moore had no intention of going quietly. What followed was a period of bloodletting in the Party combined with even more strange behaviour from Moore, before Clark could settle into her role as Labour Party leader.

But, it paid off.  Labour was, even though it lost, the victor in the 1996 Election.  Like 1987 was for the British Labour Party, 1996 was for the New Zealand Labour Party.  The aftermath of the 1996 Election secured Labour the position as the dominant party of the centre-left and crippled the Alliance as a potential and potent left-wing force. This had occurred despite Labour having lost the election and dropping in percentage points.  The Alliance did as well.  But the difference lay in how they reacted. Labour emerged from the wreckage of the 1996 Election sounding confident.  Clark emerged sounding like a potential Prime Minister.  This is in comparison to the Alliance, whose campaign consisted of a petition that failed to fire, a series of ads and sound bites that were simply embarrassing and an organisation that was wracked by inter and intra party strife. Unlike the Alliance, the Labour Party ran a coherent and competent campaign.  The fact that its vote fell in the 1996 Election had more to do with the campaign and message projected by Winston Peters and New Zealand First which substantially increased its vote, than with a failure on Labour’s behalf.  However, in the end what really counted was Labour and Clark’s ability to dust themselves off  and pick themselves up. 

Moore or Goff did not have the ability to project that level of leadership in the aftermath of 1996.  They lacked the ability to sound like winners despite a loss and of having the ability to unite a Party around them. Both were too tainted by their experiences with and in the Fourth Labour Government.  Both were seen as part of the Party’s right and both lacked the resolve and determination that Clark presented, especially in the aftermath of 1996.  Retaining Moore in 1993 or electing Goff as Leader of the Labour Party in 1996 and toppling Clark would have almost certainly would have had the effect of killing the Party’s chances.

Helen Clark was a leader – it remains to be seen whether Goff can match her in the aftermath of an election defeat.

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