A close look at voting patterns reveals that New Zealand First and the Maori Party will be firmly in Labour's sights as they plan a 2011 comeback
For the loser, the aftermath to an election year is never pleasant. Wellington rugby fans know the feeling every time their team loses another final. What did we do wrong? Why don’t they like us? How could we have lost... to them?
It’s even worse when only a few months ago you were part of a government. Memories of the Treasury benches are all too vivid, and the pain of defeat so very raw. Even worse is when you have a clutch of brand new, shiny MPs, fresh and thrusting with energy, when all you want to do is take a nice bottle of whisky and sit in a very quiet room for a rather long time.
Labour did take a hiding last year. National achieved the feat of being the first party to break the million vote mark, and won around 250,000 votes more than Labour. The combined vote share of the parties clearly on the right – National, Act, and United – was almost 50 percent, and well clear of the 41.4 percent combined share of the left (Labour, Greens, and Uncle Jim Anderton).
Leaving aside last year, however, Labour can take some comfort in that the electorate remains receptive to the social democratic ethos. In the five MMP elections since 1996, Labour tallied 3.95 million votes to National’s 3.7 million. Over the last five elections, the combined left has taken 45.6 percent of the vote to the right’s 41.4 percent. While such figures mean little in the hangover of an election loss and the margins are small, it at least reminds Labour that it remains a highly viable electoral option. National’s own election year shift to the Keynesian centre demonstrated just how wary New remain of neo-liberal orthodoxy.
The question now for the left is how to overturn National’s immediate advantage – how can Labour win in 2011? How does Labour peg back a 250,000 vote deficit? As it looks to close the gap it has National, it will first look closely at the 95,000 votes which went to New Zealand First last year. Winston Peters told New Zealanders on election night that he would be sticking around, and then promptly vanished from sight.
One can never count out the mercurial nature of New Zealand politics’ own Denny Crane, but a comeback will be difficult. Peters will be 66 – retirement age – in 2011. His natural demographic – the generation who lived and fought through World War Two, who remember fondly the days of the six o’clock swill, and who harbour a soft spot for Rob Muldoon – is naturally shrinking as they reach their eighties and nineties.
Whereto for those 95,000 votes? Labour can be thankful that Helen Clark remained popular among that vote segment. Phil Goff and Annette King should prove so too. Being of the more pragmatic wing of the party, they will quietly clamp down on any of the conscience-vote-type issues which so hurt Labour within the social conservative voting community. They will pray that memories of micro-chips in dogs and anti-child violence measures will be long forgotten.
Moreover, much of the more National-leaning NZ First vote had already deserted Peters by 2008. In 2002, his party won over 210,000 votes, which declined to 130,000 in 2005 and 95,000 last year. Clearly this went mostly to National. Labour will be hopeful that the rump will go its way.
How the Maori Party travels in government will also be important for Labour’s fortunes. The Maori Party picked up around 50,000 party votes in each of the last two elections. Labour believes this vote belongs on the left. Many Maori find themselves in those less skilled, lower waged demographics likely to be worst hit by the economic travails, and are fertile ground. This segment will remain a key battleground.
Besides targeting NZ First and Maori Party votes, Labour will, of course, be eyeing the soft underbelly of National – a party doesn’t increase its vote by 600,000 over two elections without some of it being soft. National could lose 50,000 votes and still be the biggest party, but it could be enough to give Labour a clear majority – if the latter succeeds in siphoning off its other target segments.
A renewal at the party organisation level with a new president and new general secretary will give impetus to Labour’s push to resurrect its vote share in west Auckland, and increase the turnout in South Auckland. Labour also needs to put renewed emphasis into the hinterland – the Rotoruas, Timarus, Napiers, New Plymouths, and Invercargills.
In the short term, however, National should continue to hold a strong poll lead for some months. The upcoming winter will be a test – as traditionally governments suffer as cold weather sets in, especially so in poor economic climes. How National fares in the spring and early summer will be a harbinger to 2011. If it ends this year in a strong position, with the odds on some sort of economic recovery by 2011 – along with, of course, a Rugby World Cup – then Labour could be back to the bottle of whisky and darkened rooms.
Party Vote 1996-2008, Selected Parties
Election: 1996 1999 2002 2005 2008 Total
National 701315 629932 425310 889813 1053398 3699768
Labour 584159 800199 838219 935319 796880 3954776
Greens 106560 142250 120521 157613 526944
NZ First 276603 87926 210912 130115 95356 800912
Act 126442 145493 145078 34469 85496 536978
All/Prog 209347 159859 34542 26441 21241 451430
United 18245 11065 135918 60860 20497 246585
Maori 48263 55980 104243
Turnout 2072359 2065494 2040248 2286190 2356536 10.82m