NZ election 2020: Labour win is a watershed moment in the country’s history

When I posted back in August about the New Zealand Labour Government, I was fairly confident that they would win this year’s election. I did not however think they would win by as much as they did.

On Saturday, the New Zealand Labour Party had its best election result in terms of percentage of the vote since the 1940s. On preliminary results Labour will have the numbers to govern alone and not need to form a coalition – something that has not happened since New Zealand changed to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system in 1996.

The results are still provisional as special votes, including votes from overseas such as mine, will be counted ten days after the election so will not be expected until next week. Traditionally special votes favour the centre left and in 2017 both Labour and the Green Party gained an extra MP each once special votes were added.

The 2020 election was more than just a victory for Labour and more than a crushing defeat for the National Party (New Zealand’s main centre right political party). This result marks a significant watershed in New Zealand politics which will likely have implications long after this parliamentary term. The closest comparison would be the first New Zealand Labour Government. It was elected in 1935, then returned in 1938 with a significantly increased majority widely seen by historians as an endorsement of its progressive social democratic policies which included the creation of the Welfare State through the Social Security Act and building state housing to providing low to middle income earners affordable housing. The first Labour Government remained in power until 1949 and remains one of the most influential governments in New Zealand history shaping the country’s domestic and foreign policy for decades.

NZ election 2020: Five experts on the final debate and the campaign's  winners and losers ahead of the big decision | Stuff.co.nz
Above, NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins in the leaders debate during the 2020 General Election.

Back in January this year I wrote a series of posts about why the UK Labour Party lost in 2019. Part of this analysis was that Britain was historically a conservative electorate where the Conservatives win more elections than they lose. Throughout the 20th century New Zealand had very similar voting patterns. After losing power in 1949 Labour won only five of the following seventeen elections. The move to Proportional Representation has improved things for NZ Labour and the left, as Labour has managed to form a coalition government in four of the first seven MMP elections held since 1996. In the case of the 2017 election it did so despite winning fewer votes than the National Party and relied on both The Green Party and the socially conservative NZ First Party. The latter party being blamed as a hand brake on Labour being able to deliver on its 2017 manifesto promises.

In politics a crisis can present an opportunity. There can be no doubt that the New Zealand Labour Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has helped deliver this strong result. As too will have Jacinda’s strong response to the Christchurch terror attack. The reason countries like the UK and New Zealand tend to have right leaning conservative governments, is largely due to people forming voting habits. People become used to the right being in power and so feel more comfortable voting that way. It is a mistake to assume most voters are deeply committed to an ideological viewpoint, more they form a habit of voting a particular way as it is more familiar or comfortable. For this to change, something dramatic needs to happen.

Normally the factors that influence an election are turn out and swing. High turnout historically favours the left, and in particular turnout from voters in lower socio-economic communities helps Labour. The other factor is swing voters who switch their votes regularly. The second group have historically been middle class and deemed ‘centrist’, though this characterisation of swing voters and the use of the term centrist should be used very cautiously. What we can say with certainty is that each party has a certain base level of support, and in most English-speaking democracies the main centre right party tends to have a stronger core vote to rely upon.

Saturday’s result was a disaster for the National Party, and more generally for the right in New Zealand. National were polling near 40% prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and had for the previous 15 years enjoyed support at around that mark or higher. On Saturday they won only 26.8% of the vote, the Party’s second worst result in 20 years (their worst being in 2002, but soon recovered a few years later). The rise in support for the soft libertarian Association for Consumers and Taxpayers’ Party (ACT) to 8% will give some comfort to the right. But with the Green Party also winning 7.6% of the vote this means with Labour’s 49% the NZ centre left won 56% of the vote, where the combined National and ACT vote comes to only 34.8%. In terms of a swing from right to left 2020 has been both dramatic and unprecedented. This in part has been due to the petty, dishonest and frankly immature response by National to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it also reflects the fact that the style of politics and types of policies they support do not appeal to the New Zealand electorate any longer.

Until the final results are in one should be careful of going into too much detailed analysis of the numbers. But we can see a number of so-called safe National Party seats such as Ilam, Wairarapa, East Coast, Northcote and Whanganui where Labour won quite comfortably this year. Under MMP it is the party vote nationally rather than local electorate seats which determine who will win the election, but these local results do show a collapse in support for the right and conversely a strengthening in support for Labour. It is also clear that an on the ground campaign really made a difference and had built up Labour/left networks and infrastructure throughout the country at a time when the National Party machine was very openly crumbling.

Many lifelong National voters switched to Labour in 2020. Whether these voters return back to National in 2023 when the next election is due will be interesting. While old habits die hard, when voters finally make the break it may be permanent. Or it may mean the size of New Zealand’s potential swing vote is about to grow considerably meaning there could be very large dramatic swings in future NZ elections.

The coming term will not be an easy one for Labour, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rumble on and the world plunges into the worst financial crisis in decades. On Saturday Labour were rewarded for their handling of the crisis so far, but the hard part is yet to come. On the one hand they need to rebuild the NZ economy at a time when international tourism is dead and export markets are volatile. But even prior to this the New Zealand economy was unbalanced and in a precarious state. Its over reliance on dairy exports has made it vulnerable if anything happens to this market and resulted in over intensive dairy farming which has harmed the environment – not a good look for a country that brands itself as clean and green. It also faces growing inequality with a significant growth in homelessness and poverty in recent years.

Labour were elected in 2017 on the promise of moving away from Neo Liberal economics. Whilst much of the policy offer was fairly moderate, in particular their commitment to stick to fiscal responsibility rules, the rhetoric from Jacinda was radical as the quote below illustrates:

Yet for this and various other noises about making the system fairer, Labour have not made radical changes. The 2019 year of delivery promised by the Prime Minister did not see election promises such as Kiwibuild meet the targets for building new homes promised in the 2017 election. In policy areas such as employment legislation Labour blamed NZ First for being a hand break. Many Labour supporters were disappointed to hear Jacinda rule out the introduction of a capital gains tax in 2019, and despite public support for tax increases for high income earners, Labour’s progressive tax policy is still very modest and many of its supporters would have liked it to go further. Scaremongering by National about the Greens wealth tax policy seem not to have resonated. Some commentators claim moderate Tory voters switched to Labour to give them the numbers so they would not need to form a coalition with the Greens. Whilst this sort of strategic voting may have been at play, the significance of this is being overstated by the commentariat. Further, polling suggests that Labour could have taken a stronger position on taxation and increasing public spending and still won the election with a commanding majority. That instead it has jettisoned policies such as extending free tertiary education to second and third year students shows the fiscally conservative nature of this government. The economic crisis of course forced the government to make tough choices, but NZ Labour seems to have chosen the status quo when other progressive and electable alternatives were possible.

Over the next three years Labour will have a strong majority. Labour will no longer have the excuse of NZ First holding them back. It is unclear whether Labour will continue in coalition with The Greens but given the result Labour will have the numbers to push its policies through without needing to form a coalition. Labour have been given a strong mandate and they need to use it to deliver. In policy areas like housing, transport and reducing poverty this term needs to be about delivering. In opposition these were key policy areas Labour criticised the previous government for, this term is their opportunity to really make significant changes in these areas.

Labour in New Zealand now has a strong mandate to deliver on its manifesto. If it can deliver on longstanding domestic policy issues whilst continuing to lead the world in the fight against COVID-19, Labour could remain in power for many years to come.

The final point about the election based on the provisional results, is that of diversity and representation. Based on current numbers 55% of Labour MP’s are women, 70% of Green MP’s are women and the overall make up of parliament is 48% women. In addition, there are many elected from the LGBTI community, there are 16 Maori MP’s and also Pasifika and ethnic Asian MP’s. NZ has elected its first African MP, a Sri Lankan and a Latin American MP. The point of representative democracy is that members of Parliament truly represent the population of the country. This parliament will in terms of gender, sexual identity and ethnicity be the most representative of the New Zealand population of any NZ parliament in history. This is a wonderful achievement and represents an important and fundamental shift in the country’s democracy.

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