A worry-wort's guide to Election 17 - the Majors

While we wait for the specials to be counted and negotiations to begin, we can review what happened in Election 2017. A determinedly glass half-empty view of the results shows the big two parties have plenty to fret about

Bah and humbug. It could be just that I'm a producer by profession, and as such have been trained to trouble-shoot constantly and prepare for the worst. It's an occupational hazard driven by the fear of missing guests, unprepared hosts and dead air. But when I look at this year's election results I tend to see the downside for each party. So I thought, hey, why not write a post about that?

Of the two major parties, Labour has the most to be worried about. On one hand that's a farcical statement given where it stood in the deep midwinter. At 23 percent and, according to senior party members, sliding towards the teens, this election could have been the beginning of the end for a party that at times in recent years has struggled to find its purpose and passion.

Jacinda Ardern's ascension to the leadership has turned around that slide, but it could yet be a sugar hit. Stardust or transformational leader, many of the party's fundamental problems remain.

Labour still needs to find a clear philosophy to unite behind; a coherent mission statement that extends beyond its original purpose of representing the working family and its more limited modern existence as a vehicle for the values of urban liberals.

Perhaps more immediately, it has less existential and more pragmatic issues to face. First and foremost, its tactical performance this campaign was woeful. David Parker said on election night the party had run a near perfect campaign. Bollocks. It was much more professional and united than last time, but was still undermined by its lack of dexterity and poor tactics.

First and foremost, Ardern herself (if we believe the 'captain's call' story, and there's no reason not to) made one of the worst political decisions of my lifetime. Perhaps longer. Looking back at New Zealand history, you can only shake your head and weep at Auckland's decision to pull up its tram lines, Muldoon's decision to axe Kirk's super scheme and the Mother of all Budgets.

While Ardern's decision to put Capital Gains Tax back on the table for the first term of a Labour government was a political rather than policy decision, it now ranks alongside those truly awful choices. National was reeling in the face of the Ardern Effect, yet Ardern herself chose to give them a lifeline that turned the election into a tax argument. That decision more than any other is why National got 46 percent this late in a government's lifecycle.

When the tax attacks did come, Labour was then terribly slow to respond. It took days to rule out a land tax and inheritance tax. It faffed around with what may have sounded like carefully crafted spin lines to those inside the party, but which dripped dishonesty and indecision to voters.

That Ardern and Labour could do something so downright dumb as to put tax back on the table as an issue raises the same old questions about just how astute, disciplined and well-run the party is. Questions remain about the leader's office and the front bench. While there is some striking new talent coming through, too much old wood remains. Internally, there is still (after nine years!) work to be done and the Ardern Effect shouldn't be allowed to mask that.

A look at the electorates also raises some disquieting truths. Labour did not do well in Auckland. Nor did it do well in the provinces. While it may yet 'win' this election, that needs to change if it is to be top dog.

No Auckland seats changed hands, but Labour did not make the in-roads it needed, in spite of housing costs, immigration and gridlock. In some cases the reverse happened, as Labour lost the party vote in Te Atatu, Mt Roskill and even New Lynn. That must be a huge worry. Its electorate margins fell into dangerous territory. It also went backwards in Auckland Central.

The three Ms, where Labour needs to harvest big, did not deliver. Turnout was poor and in Manukau East its majority fell by a quarter. Mangere saw a similar drop; only Louisa Wall in Manurewa grew her vote - by 104. 

The story was no better in provincial cities. Labour also lost the party vote in Napier, Palmerston North, Whanganui and on the West Coast. These are the numbers people are looking at when they question if this election reall represented a mood for change.

Labour's success was in the South Island - Christchurch (which came home), Dunedin and Nelson. Maori voters rallied strongly. In short, growing its support from 23 percent was progress, but as Ardern admitted on election night, you can only say that final result fell short.

What about National? It's hard to go past the fact National did better in 2017 than it did in 2008 when John Key swept to power. But don't worry, there's plenty for it to chew its nails over as well.

Perhaps most of all, it survived as well as it did thanks to a rookie error by Labour and one big fiscal lie. It's hard to feel proud about that and does nothing to think that's of use to you in 2020. At the end of August with Ardern building momentum, the party was in real trouble. It seized the opportunity to scaremonger on tax, but it was winnin ugly.

True, Bill English campaigned out of his skin. Many New Zealanders got to know him and liked him more than they expected. He convinced many they could have his brand of fiscal conservatism and feel like they were doing something for the most vulnerable as well. But let's not pretend it wasn't a desperate, clinging on win.

Part of their good fortune (and good tactics) was that their attacks on Labour (especially on water) motivated their rural base and took votes off New Zealand First. The Ardern Effect helped turn the election into what English called "a drag race" between the two big parties, which unintentionally helped National. So it got lucky.

As noted above, National lost ground throughout the South Island cities. But it also struggled in Auckland. While it grew vote in Labour seats and its new candidates did well, its incumbents mostly saw their majorities dwindle. On the North Shore, Jonathan Coleman (Northcote) and Maggie Barry (North Shore) both saw their majorities trimmed by a third. Incumbency hurt in many seats.

While still safe as houses, their vote fell in electorates from Helensville to Tamaki and Rodney to Upper Harbour. Christchurch has lost patience with it and Wellington remains a Labour stronghold. It also made a few errors, perhaps most notably leaving future star Nicola Willis so low on the list that she's likely to drop out of parliament at a time when she should have spent three years preparing for a rapid rise thereafter.

Now, National must look across at a popular young leader and an invigorated opponent and realise it's facing trouble in three years, regardless of what New Zealand First chooses. Either a civil war in Opposition or a tired fourth term against a much stronger Labour Party.

If Peters chooses Labour, English will have to go and the frustrated ambitions within National's cabinet (and perhaps outside it) will be laid bare. If he chooses National, well, fourth term governments do not go well. No less a politician than Peter Fraser struggled, eventually seeing a four seat majority turn into a 12 seat loss to a Sid Holland-led National, which in 1949 had resolved its internal squabbles. 

Then in 1969 Keith Holyoake won an election he had been expected to lose, thanks to a brief economic recovery, industrial disputes and the sense Norman Kirk wasn't quite ready to govern. That had changed by 1972 and Labour swept to power, 55 seats to 32.

I'm sure you can see the echoes of the past today without me havin to point them out. But it's the future that must worry it most. To become a fifth-term party, National will have to become something quite new in modern New Zealand history - a natural party of government. It must somehow try to turn into something like the Liberal-Democratic Party in Japan or Germany's Christian Democratic Union of the 1980s and 90s. It's likely that would take some significant internal reforms and policy overhauls that would be difficult with New Zealand First in tow.

English spoke on election night that National had won pushing values like protecting the most vulnerable and the environment. That's his spin, but it's not true. It may have to become true for it to win again, but it's hard to see how its membership would support that.

English simply can't carry all the weight, its second tier is not strong and it still looks male, pale and stale. 

So while one of these two main parties will be crowned in the next two weeks, plenty of challenges remain and the next few years won't be easy for either.