Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
The Labour Government was elected with 50 per cent of the vote three years ago, but current opinion polls show their vote could halve in this year’s election, which would be one of the biggest plunges in political history.
Most polls have Labour on about 26 per cent. And the downward trajectory is clear – 1News has reported Labour dropping seven times in a row in their poll. And it’s not just the polls showing Labour is in serious trouble. The Australian TAB takes bets on the New Zealand election, and for each $1 dollar bet they are currently paying out $4.50 for a Labour win, and only $1.18 for a National win.
Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch has predicted “absolute carnage and political armageddon” for Labour – pointing out the party risks losing senior MPs like David Parker, Willie Jackson, Adrian Rurawhe, and Ayesha Verrall. And if things go really badly, even Finance Minister Grant Robertson could be chucked out.
Labour could be headed for an even bigger defeat than in 1931 when Gordon Coates’ governing Reform Party plunged to just 26.6 per cent.
So why has Labour gone from such highs to such lows so quickly? The answer to this question will be discussed for a long time after 14 October, but we are already seeing some early explanations for why Labour has become so unpopular.
1) Labour’s handling of Covid
Labour won its 50 per cent vote in 2020 in response to its successful handling of the first wave of Covid. The public was extremely grateful that Jacinda Ardern’s government prioritised protecting public health until vaccines became widely available, and ensured workers and businesses were supported. But subsequent Covid waves made it into the country, and various aspects of Labour’s management of Covid were found wanting.
Last week former Cabinet Minister Peter Dunne said the main damage to Labour’s re-election prospects can be traced back to the middle of 2021 when Covid hit the country: “the government’s perceived slowness in winding back pandemic restrictions, alongside the mounting cost-of-living crisis brought about rising levels of public discontent. Compounding that was the second Auckland lockdown, which Ardern promised would be ‘short and sharp’, but which went on for over four months.”
Labour’s Covid story is now seen by many as negative rather than positive, and the Government is barely mentioning it in their re-election campaign. As Stuff political editor Luke Malpass has reported, “Voters just don’t seem to want to hear about it any more. They don’t want the Government crowing about how good it was – because it doesn’t feel that way now. And all the privations and disruption seem best forgotten.”
2) Failure to deliver the promised transformation, or even the basics
Labour came to power in 2017 promising transformational reform. They were largely judged to have failed to deliver on their promises after their first term, and it was only their handling of Covid in 2020 that saved Labour from being turfed out that year. Since then, the narrative that Labour hasn’t delivered has only grown stronger.
Labour’s flagship KiwiBuild programme, with its promise of 100,000 affordable new houses, still exists but has become something of a joke. Auckland’s Light Rail project was supposed to be complete by 2021, but hasn’t even begun, typifying Labour’s general weakness on infrastructure.
In the Listener last week, Duncan Garner argued Labour over-promised and leaned on slogans and gimmicks such as KiwiBuild and, as a result, the Government’s record of achievement is very slight.
Unsurprisingly, Labour is not running its election campaign based on what it has achieved. Malpass notes: “It’s remarkable that a Government of six years doesn’t appear to be running much on its record.”
Crucially, it also means the public are far less inclined to believe Labour’s latest promises. As TVNZ’s Jack Tame says: “what good are new promises if a government didn’t deliver on its previous ones?”
He has pointed to all the areas Labour has failed to deliver on – especially housing, mental health, and child poverty. In all these areas, Labour can point to progress, but there’s too much evidence of things going backwards. Even on climate change, some progress has been made, but ultimately “the most difficult emission reductions decisions have been deferred to future governments”, including how to deal with New Zealand’s largest gas-emitting industry.
Billions have been poured into the mental health system, but there’s a lack of clarity on where it’s all gone and why it hasn’t fixed the crisis. As the Mental Health Foundation says, the promised transformation hasn’t occurred, and “Things are overall getting worse, not better.”
Tame says, “there is no escaping the transformational void” under Labour, and its current campaign is a pale version of what got them into government in 2017.
In September, the research company Ipsos asked the public to rate the Government’s performance out of ten – with the result being 4.5/10, down from 7.2/10 three years ago. On all the issues voters consider most important at the moment, survey respondents rate Labour as inferior to National in terms of competence. This includes Health, Education and Housing – areas which Labour have traditionally dominated.
3) It’s the economy, stupid
Many voters will essentially ask themselves whether life has materially improved or worsened since Labour took power in 2017. Unfortunately for the Government, on many measures it seems to have worsened, particularly with record high inflation and interests rates. The housing crisis, in particular, has worsened significantly since Labour came to power, meaning people are struggling more than ever to pay skyrocketing rent or buy their first home.
Political journalist Henry Cooke sums it up like this: “New Zealanders are rightly upset about their falling real incomes, with high food costs in our uncompetitive grocery sector, high rents in major cities, and high interest rates for those who bought houses while they were severely overvalued… In New Zealand the government is not so squarely seen as the source of everyone’s economic pain, but it is hardly seen as the solution either”.
A common complaint is Labour has spent too much money, and has too little to show for it. Duncan Garner writes in last week’s Listener that “$48b more is spent annually than in 2017. What do we have to show for it? New motorways, trains, light rail and hospitals? No chance.”
Even on the left there is a feeling that the $48b extra spend per year under Labour – and especially the extra $60bn that was spent due to Covid – could have been targeted at transformational change, but has been frittered away on pet projects and more bureaucracy.
Some of this money has been put into expensive structural changes – centralising healthcare (Te Whatu Ora) and polytechnics (Te Pūkenga), but these have become lightning rods for discontent.
4) Broken New Zealand
For the last fourteen years polling companies have asked the public about whether New Zealand is headed in the right or wrong direction, and until recently the majority have always given a positive response. According to polling in 2020 over two-thirds of the population thought the country was headed in the right direction, with few dissenting. By 2023 this has entirely reversed – the vast majority of those polled believe New Zealand is on the wrong track.
A big part of this discontent is with key public services, which are increasingly criticised as dysfunctional, overly-bureaucratic, and under-performing. Stuff’s Luke Malpass reported that dissatisfaction with government services appears to be skyrocketing. According to a Curia survey, voters say public services have got worse since 2020 in the following key areas: Health (70 per cent say it’s worse), Criminal Justice (64 per cent), Education (57 per cent), Transport (47 per cent), and Welfare (37 per cent).
The term “polycrisis” is being used to describe the inter-connected nature of the various crises in the country. It all adds to a sense of anger and frustration with the status quo, creating a mood for change that Chris Hipkins’ government is struggling to turn around.
According to the Listener’s Danyl McLauchlan, Hipkins hasn’t been able to connect with voter dissatisfaction: “he never spoke to the very sour mood of the nation after three years of post-covid disappointment, high prices and political failure.” McLauchlan says that when this year’s Budget came out, voters could see that Labour had no plan or vision for how to fix all the problems in New Zealand: “I suspect they wanted Hipkins to signal that he had a plan to send it in the right direction. A diagnosis of our problems and a plan to solve them. The budget and now the campaign have revealed that there’s no such scheme.”
5) Failure on tax reform
New Zealanders are particularly dissatisfied with the tax system. Experts and the wider public are in agreement about the need for change – it’s only the Labour Government that seems wedded to the status quo, ruling out change. Survey after survey shows the public is open to significant reform of taxes, including introducing capital gains and particularly wealth taxes.
The Labour Government came to power promising tax reform and especially to investigate a capital gains tax. However, Jacinda Ardern went on to rule out a capital gains tax from being implemented under her watch. Under Chris Hipkins, Labour once again ruled out any new progressive taxes.
Some in the Labour Party wanted a wealth tax brought in, and Revenue Minister David Parker worked on a tax that could’ve been implemented this year, only to be overruled by the more conservative Hipkins. A Newshub Reid-Research poll recently asked voters whether he was right to rule this out – with 47 per cent disagreeing with Hipkins’ decision, and only 39 per cent agreeing.
6) Perception that Labour is arrogant and out-of-touch
Winning 50 per cent of the vote in 2020 was both a blessing and a curse for Labour. It meant that Labour had the largest number of MPs any party has ever had, and the ability to push through reform. Labour has been judged to have squandered that historic opportunity, falling into complacency and arrogance.
Labour ministers felt they could implement unsignalled projects – from Three Waters to a social insurance scheme – without the pressure to take the public along with them. As Duncan Garner said last week, “The majority vote meant no one was acting as a gatekeeper.”
Labour is perceived as out of touch with the public, which always leads to electoral death. Recently, Newshub’s Reid-Research poll asked voters whether they thought the Government was concerned with the issues that matter to Kiwis, and only 29.8 per cent thought they were, with the majority – 62.1 per cent – saying the Government isn’t.
7) Lack of clarity about what Labour believe in
Labour’s popularity declined significantly while Ardern was leader, which led her to hand over to Hipkins. Hipkins was initially able to restore a strong degree of public support, mostly through jettisoning many of the pet projects of the Ardern era. He took the party back up to about 38 per cent support after his “policy bonfire”, which signalled to the public that Labour was re-orientating to more traditional concerns.
The problem was Hipkins wasn’t willing or able to replace the jettisoned policies with anything, and it made it look like the party had no vision or plan for fixing the big problems in New Zealand. Instead, it started to look opportunistic. Leftwing political commentator Chris Trotter reflected: “My view is that Hipkins ‘policy bonfire’ was a mistake for Labour as it’s looking now like the Party has burnt down its own house by abandoning its principles. Hipkins has deserted the party’s core support base in his lust for power.”
Peter Dunne explained last week that: “when it became clear that the bonfire was simply about getting unpopular policies off the table, without replacing them with more popular alternatives, the freefall in Labour’s support resumed. The various policy announcements Hipkins has made during the election campaign have simply raised the retort that why is Labour only promoting these policies now, when it has had the best part of six years in office to have implemented them.”
Policies like GST off fresh fruit and vegetables looked cynical, which was reflected in opinion polls showing the public was largely unmoved by the new policy. As Herald political editor Claire Trevett explained, “the GST policy was seen as an attempt to offer something that looked more generous than it was, purely for the sake of votes.”
Labour’s justice policy announcements show how the party has swung between two radically different approaches in a way that lacks authenticity. In the campaign Labour has been banging the law and order drum – something political commentator Janet Wilson describes as “hypocritical” because they are shedding “what they stand for in a hasty grab for the centre vote.” By promising a crackdown on youth offenders and ram-raiders, Labour has simply appeared to be “National-lite” – and failing to convince liberals or conservatives.
In emulating National on many policies, Labour has allowed its opponents to set the agenda. Financial journalist Bernard Hickey has characterised Chris Hipkins’ pitch to voters as: “Labour’s version of tweaking the status quo in Aotearoa’s political economy is better than National’s.”
8) Labour’s focus on woke politics instead of working class politics
Under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership, Labour morphed more into a more middle-class-orientated party than ever before. Instead of focusing on the issues that working class voters care most about – such as living standards and public services, Labour became more associated with social issues, gender, ethnicity, and what some call “woke” politics. Social justice rather than economic justice became the characteristic of this Labour Government.
On taking over, Hipkins promised to ditch the more liberal focus and go with a “bread and butter” agenda. But despite the rhetoric, Hipkins was never able to deliver on this.
Josie Pagani argued this week that Labour has continued to pander to higher socio-economic voters with many of its policies. The example she uses is Labour’s environmental policies: “You see the symptoms in Labour’s priorities designed to please wealthier, urban, middle classes more than their working-class supporters, from subsidising heat pumps and EVs to planetary-scale ‘light rail’.”
This shift away from policies that might help Labour’s traditional working class constituency went hand in hand with enabling the “professional managerial class”, especially within the state sector. A big part of Labour’s approach has been to grow the bureaucracy and give more power to consultants. As Duncan Garner has explained, “The recession was biting, cost of living had already increased and yet still Labour insisted on setting up the hugely costly Health NZ and Māori Health Authority. We employed consultants not nurses.”
Others in the professional managerial class, from lobbyists to law firms, have been looked after well by Labour. Transport projects were entrusted to consultants to carry out. For example, Michael Wood sunk $50m into an Auckland Harbour cycle bridge that was never built. Likewise, $140m was spent on consultants for the Auckland Light Rail project, which still isn’t anywhere near getting off the ground.
A number of controversial government department scandals also created a perception of extravagance and profligacy. Most recently, spending by the Ministry for Pacific Peoples hit the headlines with its $40,000 farewell for its outgoing chief executive who was shifting to another government department.
9) Labour’s radical reinterpretation of the Treaty
Labour’s most radical and unpopular agenda during the last three years has been its adoption of co-governance in public services and especially the Three Waters reforms. The Treaty of Waitangi has been radically reinterpreted, and new bi-cultural governance policies have been advanced as a result, which have been perceived as separatist.
This approach was very different to that taken in Labour’s first term. Back in 2018 both Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson stated an intention to work with a traditional social democratic orientation that would deliver to Māori as part of a universalistic strategy to lift the fortunes of everyone in need, rather than specifically targeting Māori. Ardern strongly emphasised the need to deal with the long list of social ills that have disproportionately impacted Māori, but said that race-based methods were not the best way of doing so.
However this universal approach was out of favour with Labour’s Māori caucus. After the 2020 election when it came to the much-needed reform of water infrastructure, an attempt was made to do so in a way that would empower iwi leaders.
Chris Trotter has recently explained how Three Waters prevailed within the Government: “The Māori Caucus wanted it because Iwi leaders wanted it, and if they didn’t get it, they might start knocking on Te Pāti Māori’s door. No one else in the Labour caucus proper felt strongly enough about the issue to organise any kind of serious resistance. So, Hipkins allowed Three Waters to be tweaked and re-named, and hoped that the public would be satisfied with a ludicrous name change. They weren’t.”
Very little of this approach has been debated or communicated with the public, leading to suspicions that it’s being implemented by fiat in an elitist and undemocratic way because the public won’t agree with it. And ultimately the public hasn’t felt convinced by it all.
Public surveys show unhappiness with co-governance. Stuff reports that the recent Freshwater poll has 48 per cent of people agreeing with the statement that there “should be a referendum on Māori co-governance, to end the confusion and let every New Zealander have a say”. Only 17 per cent disagreed with the referendum.
Similarly, when asked if there should be more co-governance with Māori in government decision-making, 45 per cent disagreed, and only 28 per cent agreed. And in terms of the state’s use of te reo Māori, 49 per cent said that government departments should be known by their English, not their Māori name (and only 26 per cent disagreed).
10) Integrity scandals
When the history of Labour’s 2023 poll dive is written in the future, much is likely to be made of the fact that four Cabinet ministers were lost in controversial circumstances in quick succession after Hipkins took over as PM. The loss of Stuart Nash, Michael Wood, Meka Whaitiri and Kiri Allan will be seen as the final nail in the coffin of the Sixth Labour Government.
Three out of the four ministers left due to integrity failures. Nash went after he committed a string of integrity violations, the last being breaking Cabinet Responsibility rules by passing on confidential information to political donors. Wood left after his continued inability to deal with conflicts of interest over his share portfolio ownership. And Allan spectacularly resigned when she was charged after crashing her ministerial car into a parked ute. Being the first Cabinet minister to be arrested in New Zealand history, was a damning indictment, especially for a Minister of Justice during a period of heightened concern about law and order.
After these scandals Labour’s popularity fell decisively, pushing the party below 30 per cent in the polls. Earlier scandals didn’t cause too much damage, but according to Danyl McLauchlan, once Wood and Allen left in spectacular disgrace, it was “a slow decline that turned into a dramatic loss of public support.”
Taken together, the departure of five ministers in the same number of months, gave the impression of a government in crisis. Nothing in the election campaign has turned around that reputation.
Labour needs honest soul-searching about its defeat
The Labour government of 2017 to 2023 have achieved plenty of good things, and during this election campaign they’ve had a chance to highlight their achievements. There will still be at least a quarter of the electorate who will vote for them. But half of Labour’s 2020 supporters are obviously less than impressed. For too many, Labour’s achievements are overshadowed by the factors raised above.
After 14 October there must be some honest soul-searching about what went wrong. There will be some temptation to put the blame on Covid or ill economic winds. Those factors are part of the story of Labour’s decline, but if Labour doesn’t look at some of the more difficult factors in their fall from favour, they could face a very long road back to power.