Comment: You have probably heard it a thousand times: ‘It’s the party vote that counts.’

It is an axiom of New Zealand politics that dates to the aftermath of the 2002 election. It was a tough environment for National that year and this led to many Nats running as local candidates first and representatives of the party second.

The primacy of the party vote has been drilled into the skulls of party candidates and supporters ever since.

It is true that, under MMP, the importance of the party vote usually plays the decisive role in determining which party governs. A strong showing in the electorates is no substitute for a strong showing at the party level. Electorates still matter in all sorts of interesting ways, however.

The pitch to big business: ‘Turning the corner’ or ‘turnaround job’
Candidates climb into each other in downtown Auckland

Here is a refresher on the basics. Parties are entitled to a certain number of seats based on their share of the party vote. However, those seats are first assigned to the winners of electorates. Only then are the remaining seats filled from the party list.

So even if the electorate seats do not determine which party governs, they can be crucial for determining which individual politicians get a seat at the table.

This year looks particularly interesting. In the catastrophe of the 2020 election, National won just 23 electorate seats, which was one of its worst ever results. Labour, in turn, won 46 seats.

The tides have now changed, and Labour’s vote will be much reduced from last election’s high. National has not come up as much as Labour has declined. But given that most seats are a two-horse race, National does not have to be that much ahead in the big party vote to win a swag of seats back.

Just what happens has interesting implications. Several high-ranking Labour MPs are list MPs and if their party holds onto too many electorates, some of them might be in danger. Ayesha Verrall, Willie Jackson and even David Parker may be counting on a strong showing by National in the electorates for the preservation of their very careers.

Kieran McAnulty is a minister who is running in an electorate, and as we’ll discuss in next week’s column, could be vulnerable. His Wairarapa electorate should be a National seat. On paper.

At the same time, National also must fend off challenges from smaller parties in a handful of key seats. The surging Act Party is convinced it can win a second electorate in Tāmaki and is also standing a strong candidate in my own electorate of Rangitikei. The Opportunities Party is convinced it can break through into Parliament by winning the “open” seat of Ilam where local personality Raf Manji is campaigning hard.

The trouble is that it is also quite hard to know what will happen. Local polling is fraught with issues. Survey costs, sample sizes and geographic inaccuracies make it hard to gauge voter sentiment at the local level reliably. Local races can be influenced by a multitude of factors, from candidates’ personal popularity to the demographic profile of the area.

In the weeks remaining before the election, I will be writing a series of profiles on some of these key races, with a focus on some of the races that the National Party will be contesting.

There are two reasons for this focus. The first is that National starts with very little to lose and much to gain, with the Labour Party forced on defence simply by virtue of the size of its 2020 victory. The second is my own perspective and insight as a centre-right pundit and political writer.

On that note, I need to be clear on my own perspective. I am a member of the National Party, though I have no official role within it and no mandate to speak for it. I maintain that membership because it is better for people to be open about their preferences when they have one.

While I do not claim complete neutrality, I have friends across the political spectrum. In fact, the only candidate donation I have made so far is a very small one to Labour MP Deborah Russell, who I count as a friend. There is more to politics than wanting your team to win.

The other thing to remember is that my analysis is going to be put to the test soon enough. Pundits are good at explaining things in hindsight and it is only right they put their insights to the test when election year rolls around. Polling day is just weeks away and I would much rather be proved right on election night than to have indulged in overly optimistic projections.

In the coming weeks, we will dive deeper into some of the key electorate races, looking at candidates, demographics, and local issues that could be game-changers. Strap in; it is going to be a bumpy ride.

Liam Hehir is a writer and newspaper columnist from the rural Manawatu and a former National Party activist.

Leave a comment