Two remarkable people fall to a left hook

Two remarkable figures will be casualties if the Alliance’s disintegrates: Matt McCarten and Laila Harr�.

McCarten is a man of disarming charm, whose easy candour masks a native shrewdness as an organiser that enemies call cunning or deviousness. A television natural despite his slight stutter, he has the requisite charisma to lead a small party.

For his role in assembling the Alliance in the early 1990s I once made him my politician of the year.

Harr� is not blessed with charm but has one of the sharpest minds in the cabinet, from which Jim Anderton’s split is likely to remove her.

Labour ministers negotiating with her have found her a trial. She has tenaciously pushed old-Labour, class-based ideas. Compromise has come syllable by syllable. She is the MP closest to the hard-left ideals which hold sway on the Alliance council.

But Harr� also has a smart legal brain and the intellect to handle complex and slippery topics. As a backbencher on Parliament’s commerce select committee between 1996 and 1999 she won the respect and even admiration of crusty rightwingers in ACT and National for the quality of her technical work on bills.

Commerce Minister Paul Swain, to whom she is associate, gratefully delegated to her the reform of the intellectual property laws and similar arcane matters vital to the new economy. No substitute comes readily to mind.

Why are these two remarkable people in jeopardy? Because they misjudged their challenge to Anderton.

There can be only one faction in an Anderton party, which is why he has so often found himself isolated. But this time he has the high cards.

He will be back in Parliament in 2003. Harr� and McCarten are in serious danger of electoral oblivion.

They have also misjudged the political landscape.

Leftwing commentator Chris Trotter, who is close to the McCarten-Harr� axis, argued at a conference on journalism last week that the populace is to the “left” of the government.

On this argument a McCarten-Harr� Alliance (combining Harr�’s ideology and McCarten’s push and pull) would now be burgeoning on the back of popular impatience with the Clark Labour party’s obsessive centrism — except that Anderton’s collaborative approach in the cabinet has veiled the Alliance option from view.

The seductive logic that flows from this is that the Alliance has sunk in the polls because it has not ridden this popular urge for a more “left” stance and that if it runs its red flag back up the mast, it will be rewarded. McCarten’s run for Auckland’s mayoralty was thought to have in part realised this theory.

But it is wrong. “More” has been mistaken for “left”.

The majority of the populace — and particularly the low-income part — does want more and better government services from which it benefits. A vote on whether more should be spent on health services would likely pass. The same probably goes for other services.

There might also be a vote for higher taxes on the higher paid. Andrew Rawnsley, the British Observer’s political editor, reckons the days when tax cuts led the electoral agenda may be over in Britain. The Conservatives are wary of promising cuts for fear of accusations of matching cuts in (decrepit) services. The next British budget will raise taxes, he says.

But wanting more is not “left”. It is self-interest — just as the 92 per cent vote for the tougher sentences referendum in 1999 was a self-interested wish for better personal security. Few would argue that was “left”. Likewise opinion poll opposition to taking the Tampa refugees or disarming the air force and support, by a big majority, for thumping the Taleban.

Even centrists want “more”. That is natural, not “left”. It does not equate to a belief that bosses must be milked more and social ownership is preferable to private ownership.

There is a small catchment for a “left” platform. If the Anderton veil were drawn aside (and if the Greens were to biodegrade), a 5 per cent vote might well materialise from that catchment.

But the Alliance’s hard left pushed too hard against too hard a man. In the fog of war that has now descended, the 5 per cent, if it exists, will not be able to find its way to the promised land. And two remarkable people will disappear from politics.