Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
Political commentators and journalists are searching around for the right term to describe Saturday’s election result. “Seismic” or “tectonic” might be the winner – the shift really was of that magnitude. Labour increased their vote from 37% to 49%, which is likely to rise closer to 50% after special votes are counted.
Meanwhile, National was inflicted with what has been called a “blue bloodbath”, especially in the provincial city seats that they lost. National’s party vote is down to 27%, and once special votes are counted will probably fall nearer to 25%. And they have lost the party vote in 68 of the 72 electorates in the country. Added to this, there have been some big wins for minor parties that are also history-making.
The “tectonic” term was used by political scientist Richard Shaw in this way: “This election is tectonic. Ardern has led Labour to its biggest victory since Norman Kirk, and enters the Labour pantheon with Savage, Lange and Clark. Once special votes are counted, Labour could be the first party since 1951 to win a clear majority of the popular vote” – see The Conversation’s Jacinda Ardern and Labour returned in a landslide — 5 experts on a historic New Zealand election.
The analysis of other political scientists is also conveyed in this article. Jack Vowles comments that the pre-election polls were correct, and Labour has been rewarded for being a traditional Labour government in protecting the vulnerable during a pandemic. Bronwyn Hayward points to the fact that the Greens have defied history by increasing their share of vote despite being a minor party in government, and Jennifer Curtin suggests that in the regions Labour has benefited from NZ First’s Provincial Growth Fund.
The main focus for commentators is on Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s truly central role in her party’s astonishing victory. Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton even suggests that Ardern might become “the greatest Prime Minister in New Zealand’s history” given the size of her win and the opportunities that it presents her – see: Jacinda Ardern joins the pantheon (paywalled).
Her accomplishment is not only impressive in terms of recent MMP history, but Hooton argues you have to go much further back to find parallels: “At 50 per cent, Ardern joins a pantheon that, since the 1930s, includes only the father of the welfare state Michael Joseph Savage (56 per cent in 1938), war leader Peter Fraser (51 per cent in 1946) and the scourge of the watersiders Sid Holland (54 per cent in 1951). The only other names that stand alongside that lot are Joseph Ward (59 per cent in 1908), King Dick Seddon (58 per cent in 1893) and John Balance (56 per cent in 1890).”
In comparing Ardern’s achievements to such political giants, other commentators have also described her as joining the “pantheon” of the greats. And Herald journalist Simon Wilson says her victory is deserved: “New Zealanders have said thank you, thank you to Jacinda Ardern and have looked at the rest of the world and seen how lucky we are” – see: A victory for history books (paywalled). He continues: “she has been rewarded for her exceptional management skills. She kept a three-way coalition together for an entire term and has personally overseen the entire Covid response: health, economic, the works.”
It almost raises the prospect of whether New Zealand is ready to have portraits of Jacinda Ardern on our walls. Perhaps Michael Joseph Savage can finally be replaced.
It’s the politics of love according to Steve Braunias writing for the Guardian. He recalls how five years ago in a pub, Ardern as a backbench MP told him that “she wished that Labour’s message was about love”, and that now this is what the nation is showing her – see: New Zealanders have recognised the good luck that Jacinda Ardern is ours. Braunias says that the Government’s successful Covid response meant that this “was the happiness election”.
Many are calling it an historic election, too. Sunday Star Times editor Tracy Watkins says its “history in the making” and “It’s an extraordinary result, made possible only by Jacinda Ardern’s extraordinary leadership during some of the most extraordinary events in New Zealand’s history. A mass terrorism attack. A volcanic eruption. And the mother of all disasters, Covid. Ardern truly has been a leader for the times” – see: An extraordinary result made possible by extraordinary leadership.
According to former politician Bryan Gould, the extent of Labour’s win suggests “that something quite fundamental has changed in New Zealand politics”, and he too credits Ardern’s leadership with the shakeup, but only because the mood of the public has changed – see: Lessons from the election.
Here’s the key part of Gould’s argument: “They looked for leadership – that is, leadership that leads, and doesn’t merely calculate how best to buy support from the greatest number at the least cost. They saw themselves not just as individuals, but as members of a society that worked well together and in which they could feel pride. They wanted to be able to congratulate themselves on their achievements. They wanted to feel an affinity with leaders they liked, trusted and admired. They looked beyond our shores and saw examples and instances of leadership in other countries that they rejected and compared unfavourably with our own”
We shouldn’t however be surprised by the extent of Labour’s win, according to political scientist Grant Duncan, who says that the buzz that surrounded Ardern on the campaign trail was an early indication of the tectonic shift: “You just had to follow the crowds. In shopping malls and on university campuses, they flocked to see Jacinda. Judith Collins was resorting to calling up loyal party activists to back her” – see: The crowds gave a clue for Labour’s extraordinary feat.
Duncan also suggests that the opinion polls simply didn’t factor in some of the shifts caused by the referendum: “Opinion polls leading into the election were indicating Labour in the mid-forties. Pollsters failed to sample young voters who lined up to vote for cannabis legalisation and control, and mostly for Labour or the Greens.”
Labour’s overwhelming victory can be seen in how well the party did in the provinces. James Hall explains: “Labour won the party vote in every single South Island electorate, which is the first time this had happened since the MMP voting system was adopted for the 1996 General Election” – see: Labour wins party vote in every South Island electorate.
Finally, for details of Labour’s new MPs (and those of the other parties), see Simon Collins’ Forty newcomers include our first African, Latin American and Sri Lankan MPs.