Election 08 – the Sunday morning analysis

National takes the spoils to lead what looks like a very right-wing government. But if John Key wants to survive more than one term, he will have to stick to his centrist mandate

The electorates told the story last night. Odd as it may be for an MMP election, where it's the party vote that counts, it was the numbers coming out of seats such as New Plymouth, Auckland Central, and West Coast-Tasman early in the night that suggested Labour had failed to contain the swing to National and the mood for change. And so it proved.

John Key will become New Zealand's 38th prime minister as National took 45 percent of the votes to Labour's 34 percent, a strong lead under MMP. ACT's late surge held and it finished on 3.7 percent, bringing in five MPs. The significance of its success will be measured in negotiations, but how leader Rodney Hide and his new MPs use its greater-than-expected power could be crucial to what shape the new government takes. They will be joined in a coalition government by Peter Dunne, who retained his Ohariu seat as the lone United Future MP.

Winston Peters bowed out of parliament – conceding defeat, but not declaring his resignation from his party's leadership or politics altogether – as New Zealand First defied the polls, but not quite enough, winning 4.2 percent of the vote. As the swing right became apparent, Peters became Labour's only hope. But his parties numbers stayed stubbornly between 4.2 and 4.8 percent all night.

The Maori Party, which just two weeks ago seemed so likely to play such a vital part in post-election negotiations, won't be needed by either major party to form the government, although Key indicated he would talk to co-leader Tariana Turia in the coming week about some involvement. The Maori Party won five of the Maori seats (just as Pundit predicted).

The Greens once again flattered to deceive, growing its support to 6.4 percent and 8 MPs, but not the nine percent promised by the polls. It appears that in the final week there was a a mass political hokey-tokey, with a sizeable chunk of voters of all persuasions taking a step to the right. About two percent of potential Greens supporters went back to Labour, two percent of Labour supporters crossed the line to National, and two percent of National voters, confident the right centre-right had it in the bag but wanting to push National further from the centre, moved to ACT.

What the numbers seem to suggest is only small movement of the party vote throughout the campaign – a few percent veering back and forth. The percentages after last night look much like the poll of polls have looked for the past six weeks.

The mood was more clearly illustrated by the electorates. When seats like Palmerston North and Christchurch Central, of all places, looked under threat, the writing was on the wall. They ultimately stayed Labour, but in Auckland it was a different story. Maungakiekie and Waitakere summed it up really. Seats that should be solidly Labour slid away from its grasp. As the New Zealand Herald reports this morning:

National's share of the Auckland party vote jumped by 6.9 per cent to 49.7 per cent, helping it to pick up three seats from Labour plus the new seat of Botany.

Labour's share of the Auckland vote plunged by 8.7 per cent to just 31.7 per cent, much lower than in any of Helen Clark's three successful elections but comparable with the party's lows in the early to mid-1990s.

As goes Auckland, so goes the election.

My guess, as the numbers are analysed more closely in the coming days, is that Labour has lost a decent chunk of its working class, white vote. It seems to hold up in South Auckland, keeping the support of Pacific and poorer Asian voters. It did well enough with Maori, losing just Te Tai Tonga to the Maori Party. But its old Labour, working class vote – the westies, the working blokes, the manual labourers, the less-than-zealous unionists, the crowd Chris Trotter always warns Labour's university-educated and liberal leaders not to forget – seem to have given the party a slap. And that suggests the 'nanny state' perception carried some weight.

National learnt from 2005 and did its job reclaiming much of the centre. Rather than talk about "mainstream New Zealand", it simply looked like mainstream New Zealand. For all of Key's $50 million, the walk this time seemed more authentic than the talk last time.

It's not quite the "win by default" I picked during the campaign, National delivered a stronger result than that. But it was, as I had expected, a change of shoes election. Labour held onto its core support of around 35 percent and was not hurled out of office with a vengeance, as has been the case in recent government removals.The right will properly celebrate after so long out of power, but the left won't be gutted. As I wrote at the end of October, if you take a long-term view there is some virtue in losing this election.

The mood for change is a soft one in hard times, a mood Key read perfectly in the campaign, and indeed all this year. The mood is for new faces, a tilt to just a bit more of an economic focus and less attention on social policy, something a bit more blokey. As Helen Clark pointed out herself, this was the fifth time she had led Labour into an election. We got bored with that solid, dependable pair of shoes we been wearing for so long and feel the need to spruce ourselves up a bit. But the country doesn't want significant reform or a swing right. The Greens, we should note, actually grew their support.

And in that is the tension for this government and the danger for Key. ACT and its five MPs will try to pull Key further right than his campaign promised, as will a number of his front bench – Lockwood Smith, Tony Ryall, Murray McCully, and others. If he wants to be more than a one-term prime minister, he must resist those temptations. National does not have a mandate to do what Hide, the returning Sir Roger Douglas and National's right wing will want it to do. Whether Key has the wherewithal, political nous, and inner fortitude, to walk the line, I wonder. I'll be fascinated to see in the next three years whether Key actually stands for something and believes in anything other than ambition.

If he is truly Holyoakean and can find his purpose, he stands a chance of building something. If he's a Brash in Holyoake's clothing, he's got three years written all over him.

The pacific drums that heralded his arrival at Sky City last night to give his acceptance speech were a good sign. That was not the National party of even three years ago. Key will have to build a diverse coalition around the centre, just as Clark has done, if he wants to weather the tough years ahead. His honeymoon will not be a long one, given some of the decisions he's likely to have to make in the next six months.

Key's acceptance speech was full of the language National supporters love – "the success of the individual", "a government that values individual achievement", "prosperous" (several times), and of course his buzzword, "ambitious". What does that mean in policy terms? We'll have to wait an see what his legislative priorities are in reality rather than rhetoric.

It was a good speech, too eager and lacking in gravitas to be great. But it was well-ordered and good-mannered and confident. Yet for one last time Clark trumped him.

Clark gave a concession speech that, while a gruff as always, was all class. Even the one partisan paragraph – her warning that everything she and her governments had built shouldn't be allowed to "go up in flames on the bonfire of right-wing politics" – was a most astute observation of the national mood.

On a largely poll-predicted night she stole the show with the one big surprise, which on reflection should have been no surprise at all. In conceding, Clark stood down as Labour leader promising a replacement before Christmas. Uncompromising and decisive as ever, even her opponents have got to be impressed. While her achievements have been largely incremental, history will record that she has matched the success of her political heroes, Peter Fraser and Keith Holyoake.

It's interesting to note that, with her resignation, there's no woman within coo-ee of leadership of either main party. (Even if Maryan Street becomes Labour's deputy, it will be to round out a ticket. There's little chance of her being the boss). After more than a decade of women in charge, we may not see another woman prime minister for some years.

What went wrong for Clark and her Labour colleagues? It will take some time for them to forgive Mike Williams his 'Key the crook' obsession, I think. If there was any momentum to Labour – and that's a big if – it was coming two weeks ago and was stopped in its tracks about the time Williams trip to Melbourne to dig dirt on Key was revealed. Williams so desperately wanted that signature to be Key's he lost his judgment. That was never a trip for a president to make himself.

But Clark took the blame herself last night in a McCain-like moment, and she was right to do so. The woman has done most things right politically for so long. But she was wrong not to rejuvenate Labour earlier. She needed a significant amount of fresh blood three years ago. And she was wrong to focus so much on Key this campaign. She hoped he would crack. He didn't maintaining his discipline. As Lockwood Smith and Maurice Williamson showed in the past month, Labour would have been better to turn the spotlight – and the pressure – away from fresh-faced Key and onto National's tired old front bench.

Labour's leadership battle – which thanks for Clark's prescription will be short, not dangerously drawn-out over summer – is a topic to be considered more deeply another day. Yet my gut tells me that if Labour is taking the long view, if it wants to win in three years rather than just close the gap, it need a new generation not a transitional leader. That, to me, suggests David Cunliffe rather than Phil Goff. Goff will be tempting as a tough Auckland centrist who could win back the working class and the city of sails. But he's still a man of the 80s, still an ex-academic. Cunliffe of the West, Cunliffe the former Harvard man, the former community worker (crikey, is this sounding like some US president you know?), the former diplomat, seems at first glance to be the man for the job.

Both major parties introduced a pile of new MPs last night. The diversity is impressive and should be welcomed by us all. This has been a clearing out election, and surely a prime minister for the 2020s – maybe sooner – has joined the ranks of MPs last night.

Finally, I want to note that it was great to see our pundits all across the media last night, giving such insightful analysis. Dr Jon Johansson was on TV3, David Lewis on TVNZ. David Young was there in Whanganui with the Maori Party, and while we haven't got his photo up yet, he will be joining us as a regular commentator. Our hope is that some of the other faces you saw and heard last night will also join us.

For now, congratulations to National, ACT and United Future. Lead us well.