Labour astray in New Zealand: Canada looked good, but Mark Lawson detects bad news for John Smith in another poll

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The Independent Online
THERE have been many jocular comparisons between the recent Canadian general election and the next British one. The reduction of the ruling Conservative Party to a rump of two seats in the Ottawa parliament has been widely presented as an omen of cheer for John Smith and of fear for John Major.

Strange as it is to find Canada, traditionally symbolic of stolidity, presented as a cultural trendsetter, I quite understand the attractions of this parallel. If the Canadian pattern were repeated exactly, the Conservative Party in the next parliament would consist of John Major and Michael Mates, holders of the largest majorities. Party conference would become not a matter of Blackpool or Brighton, but of 'your room or mine?'

I fear, though, that the more relevant dress rehearsal for the next British election was this weekend's poll in New Zealand. The ruling party had followed right-wing economic policies resulting in, or followed by, an epic recession. The prime minister was a man of negative charisma and absent oratory, who had achieved the lowest opinion poll ratings not just in the history of New Zealand but of any leader in any democracy since personality politics began. It looked as if Jim Bolger, the starchy farmer who led New Zealand's National Party, could have run against the Amoebic Dysentery For Everyone Party and still lost. Yet despite all this, the opposition Labour leader - a bald Labour opposition leader, one adds with gathering gloom - was unable cleanly to knock over an apparently coconut-shy opponent. A hung parliament resulted, with Bolger's party holding the largest number of seats, leaving political uncertainty and a scramble for coalitions. Optimists will observe that Labour was within a whisker of winning. Alarmists will note that, even in such helpful circumstances, they could not do it.

Writers are often accused of false omniscience, so I should perhaps make clear that I have made a reasonably detailed study of New Zealand politics, in two research trips for a chapter in a recent travel book,('The Battle for Room Service', Picador, pounds 14.99.). Its theme, beneath its facetiousness, was the increasing instability of formerly staunch and cautious democracies. The societies were becoming more violent, the electorates volatile and distrustful of all the traditional options. New Zealand was one example and Canada another, so I feel qualified to distinguish between the applicability of those nations' recent polls to the British situation.

Canada, which endlessly worries out loud about becoming a mere copy of America, has just produced an election, 12 months on, which mutely reproduces the last one held by its southern neighbour. Preston Manning, a right-wing maverick third party leader, lovingly understudied Ross Perot in doing wildly well for a wild card. A long-standing right-wing administration (Canadian Conservatives/US Republicans) was humiliated by an opposition (Canadian Liberals/US Democrats) with genuinely radical ambitions, although, as the order book of the Westland helicopter company now shows, Jean Chretien was more efficient in early implementation than Bill Clinton.

So, joke about which two Tories would survive the same trick here, but Canada is probably more America's mirror than Britain's. We should look at New Zealand. Older Kiwis still call Britain the 'mother country' but New Zealand has been the mother country (they never found the father) for a many political ideas practised on Britain. Indeed, Herbert Asquith, while prime minister in 1912, declared New Zealand a 'laboratory' for the instruction of other countries.

The status of the two distant islands as a test-tube culture began in 1893, when it became the first Western democracy to grant women the vote. This was not the result of ideological precocity, but the accidental outcome of a piece of bungled parliamentary power-playing by a male chauvinist prime minister. But other social experiments were more conscious. The nation built up the first cradle-to-grave welfare system. Then, in the late Eighties, the New Zealand conservatives did quite openly what the British Conservatives were regularly alleged to be doing secretly, and dismantled the supportive state apparatus so laboriously established.

'Breakfast clubs' (a euphemism for soup kitchens) became a new feature of New Zealand society as Mr Bolger's economic lieutenant, finance minister Ruth Richardson, snipped away at the umbilical provisions. New Zealand humourists called her 'Ruthless', but British right-wing politicians thought of calling her 'GuRu'.

And this weekend's election in the laboratory nation has thrown up the results of two more political experiments. In test-tube A we saw what happened when a dour and hugely unpopular right-wing prime minister who had slashed state provision went before his electorate. In test-tube B we saw what happened when, in a separate referendum conducted alongside the election, a Western democracy was offered the chance of throwing out the first- past-the-post system in favour of proportional representation.

Let's look first at test-tube B. The positive result seems like a thrilling litmus paper for electoral reform campaigners in the mother country. The first democracy on the British model to be offered the chance of abandoning its electoral methods has enthusiastically taken it.

I wonder, though, whether the New Zealand result really is such good PR, as it were, for PR. One of the drawbacks of the constituency system - particularly in places such as New Zealand and the UK where beliefs and lifestyles clump together regionally - is that it provides little possibility of radical protest at the ballot box, isolated loyalties always masking generalised resentment. In Britain, the SDP and the various species of Liberals have generated much heat but few seats. Two new New Zealand groupings in the recent poll had to be content with a pair of seats each.

In this context, the referendum on proportional representation can be seen as the equivalent of Ross Perot, the only available way of saying stuff-them-all, of registering a vote against the whole system and against all formal parties. It is thus the product of irritation rather than ideological commitment. There is therefore the obvious risk that, if political chaos and instability continue in New Zealand, this first laboratory experiment in PR will provide ammunition for opponents of the process.

And, if test-tube B holds less promise than initially it seemed to for the British Liberal Democrats, then the results from test-tube A - nerdish despised head of cost-cutting administration goes to the polls - should have our Labour Party praying that this laboratory nation sometimes produces dud results. At the moment, John Smith probably gives New Zealand no more thought than occasionally wishing that Bryan Gould, who was born there, had stayed there. But he should not ignore this weekend's warnings from Wellington.

The New Zealand electorate is, at least in the older age groups, effectively the cautious British middle- classes writ large or, given New Zealand's population of 3 million, writ smaller. These are exactly the people the British Labour Party needs to convince away from their right- wing allegiance and it might be regarded as alarming that, in New Zealand, they chose to vote more decisively against politics in general (through the PR referendum) than against the government.

It might also be added that, within recent memory, the Kiwi Labour Party was as far ahead in the opinion polls as the British one is now and that, as the British Conservative Party will assuredly not be offering the electorate a referendum on PR, the only focus for a Perotesque protest vote will be the Liberal Democrats.

John Smith and his colleagues might well have been singing 'O, Canada]' in their baths in recent weeks. But I fear they should change their tune to 'Aaaaargh] New Zealand]'

('The Battle for Room Service', Picador, pounds 14.99.),

(Photograph omitted)

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