With the latest polls showing ACT's support at 1% and leader Rodney Hide having no chance of winning the Epsom seat, it looks like the hungry maw of MMP is about to claim its second "major" political party. The Alliance fell out of Parliament in 2002, and odds are the same thing will happen to ACT in 2005.
What are the similarities? Are they at all instructive about what is happening to ACT now?
- Disunity. The Alliance fell out over Afghanistan; ACT fell out over its new leader, with the party organsiation fighting the caucus. It's trite but true: voters hate disunity.
- Extremism. In the context of NZ politics today, both ACT under Hide and the Alliance under Harre represent extreme points of view for which the electorate does not have much sympathy. Trying to overcome this inbuilt difficulty (obvious when you're the most left, and right, wing party on the spectrum) requires supreme political skills. Obviously Anderton was better than Harre; and obviously Prebble was better than Hide.
- Relevance. In 2002 the Alliance's claim to relevance was limited. Their policy victories had been coopted by Labour, and their best liked public figure had formed his own micro-party. Voters on the left had a sexier brand to vote for not tainted by disunity (the Greens). In 2005, National is led by "ACT's 9th MP" and National is a serious contender for the first time since 1996. Centre right voters have a strong incentive to back a winner. ACT at 1%, disunited and dispirited, doesn't look like a winner.
- Activist drift. By 2002 many of the people who helped the Alliance win in 1999 had stopped being involved with the party. Some had (re)joined Labour; some had joined the Greens; others ran screaming from politics. The core left was limited. Now in 2005, something similar is happening to ACT. Many former activists have decamped to join National. Others have been burned off in the change to Hide's leadership.
Of course, there are important differences. Liberalism is arguably a more popular political movement in New Zealand than socialism is. ACT also had (don't know about has) far more money than the Alliance.
The similarities, though, are startling. I think the most likely outcome is that ACT will end up out of Parliament. In large part, it has nobody to blame but itself - for being too friendly to Brash; and for allowing the passions of a leadership fight to be spilled into the public arena for months at a time.
This does raise a further interesting question. Will the same happen to the Greens? I suspect not. It seems to me that only parties on the clear outside of the left-right spectrum become vulnerable to the types of dynamics that have eaten the Alliance and ACT up. The Greens have a large middle class constituency in addition to their social justice constituency, and so can't easily be placed at one end. Additionally, they seem to be more disciplined about resolving issues out of the media spotlight, with their consensus-based politics.
So perhaps we see the end of an idea that grew up in the Labour Party in the 1980s. If we do, I won't be too happy, because fracturing the right vote always strikes me as a good idea. But I won't be shedding many tears if it happens.