Analysis: Over the coming days, the Labour Party will take some time for reflection, Chris Hipkins said on the heels of his devastating loss on Saturday evening.
“We’ll take the time to do that, to reflect and then decisions about the future are for another day,” he said.
What will those reflections turn up? One thing in particular seems obvious, and not just in hindsight. Commentators have occasionally argued over the past two years that Labour doesn’t understand the depth of feeling that still remains in Auckland after that long, Delta lockdown in late 2021.
Those comments proved true on Saturday, as the party lost not just the provincial seats it had won in its record 2020 victory but also a number of solid red seats across Auckland.
Mt Roskill, which has always gone for Labour, flipped to National. So too did New Lynn and, at time of writing, Te Atatū. Even in Mt Albert, Labour’s Helen White was barely holding on to a lead early on Sunday morning – though her race was complicated by a two-tick campaign from Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March.
In Auckland Central, where Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick just barely eked out a victory over White in a three-way race in 2020, Labour’s candidate Oscar Sims was virtually absent from the results this time around. Swarbrick won with a more comfortable margin of 2000 votes above National’s Mahesh Muralidhar, whose 8991 votes still dwarfed Sims’ 1689.
While the headlines moved on to cost of living and the recession-that-wasn’t, many Aucklanders still harbour resentment over that lengthy lockdown and used their votes to punish Labour. It was still the right public health move, but evidently the wrong political one. There’s a reason Chris Hipkins began airing his regrets about the length of those restrictions, first in 2022, then after he became Prime Minister and once more in August as the election campaign loomed. That was never going to be enough.
This isn’t to say the lockdown was the sole cause of Labour’s defeat. The fundamentals were against the party, with inflation still well above 3 percent and a sluggish economy dominating the news. Incumbents usually lose when the economy isn’t doing well – that’s politics 101. But the scale of the loss and the nature of it were inexorably shaped by the Covid-19 response.
What of the much-vaunted momentum or surge that Hipkins talked up over the past week? Was it merely, as Twitter users would say, copium?
No, the reversal in Labour’s fortune was shown in both public and private polls. The party’s internal tracking poll on Friday night had it at 31 percent.
That’s a far cry from the 26.8 percent it had managed as of 12.30am on Sunday.
Party insiders suspect low turnout is partly to blame for the discrepancy. In 2020, 2.89 million people made it to the polls. This year, with a larger eligible voting population, more than 600,000 fewer votes had been recorded by early Sunday.
That won’t have been helped by a glitch with the Electoral Commission’s special voting computer system, which led to long delays and saw voters leaving lines in south Auckland, at least.
On top of all of that, some of the vote will have been locked in during advance voting, before the ‘Chipmentum’ took hold.
None of this explains Labour’s loss in full either. In fact, low turnout is in part a symptom of an uninspiring campaign.
What’s clear is the party will have to learn from its defeat if it wants to avoid making those same mistakes again.
For all the criticism of National’s 2020 campaign, that party and caucus obviously internalised the findings of an independent review into that loss. The caucus tightened up, particularly once Christopher Luxon took over, and this election didn’t see the same parade of embarrassing and often avoidable scandals from National.
Hipkins and his MPs now have a similar journey ahead of them. They’ll need to figure out what went wrong, but some think the problem may lie deeper than that. In 2017, Labour came to power with an ambitious 100-day plan. Not all of those policies survived contact with reality (remember Kiwibuild?) but despite the coalition politics that government got a lot done.
Then Covid-19 arrived and Jacinda Ardern rocketed to personal superstardom. Somewhere along the way, Labour lost its own sense of self, beyond being merely “Jacinda Ardern’s party”. What it stood for was what Ardern wanted. And what Ardern wanted was often what the polls and focus groups suggested the public wanted.
Hence, no capital gains tax, delayed and scrapped hate speech reforms and climate policy that prioritised household budgets above actually cutting greenhouse emissions.
Hipkins had the difficult job of rediscovering Labour’s identity, but he instead directed it even more towards what the focus groups said was optimal. Hence, watered down Three Waters, the big policy bonfire and marquee policies like GST off fresh fruit and veggies which focus grouped extremely well but which crashed and burned.
That lack of inspiration in Labour was visible in the way votes went basically anywhere but Labour, whenever presented the opportunity. The Greens appear to have picked up two Wellington electorates, including one in a three-way race against the two big parties. Te Pāti Māori held Waiariki and flipped three other seats, including Te Tai Tonga (long considered permanently wedded to a Tirikatene) and Hauraki-Waikato (held by Nanaia Mahuta since 1996).
National’s campaign for all its success ought not to have done nearly as well. The controversy over the tax plan adding up (or not) and the campaign chair suggesting the party would put the country through a second election just one week ago should have signalled serious trouble. Where there were alternatives to Labour or National, voters chose them. That helps explain the Green success in Wellington Central and Act’s seizure of Tāmaki off of National.
In an MMP environment, it wasn’t enough for Labour to simply be the second least inspiring party. And on the night, it turned out they didn’t even accomplish that.
Rediscovering Labour’s values is a prerequisite for any future electoral success.
But that’s a matter for another day. For now, Hipkins and his MPs will be content to lick their wounds and dream about what might have been.