As House of Shem pumped up the party in Hawera, a little noticed detail at Te Pāti Māori’s celebrations in Debbie Ngarewa-Packer’s stomping ground may indicate not just where the party’s election campaign won a huge victory, it may also be a clue to future elections.

On the tables were framed photos of party members out on the campaign with various descriptions of the kaupapa that drove them. One stated it simply but powerfully – Mokopuna thinking. In other words – what are our political decisions leaving for our grandchildren.

The question is an apt one. The major parties are and have been fixated for some time on the Pākehā Baby Boomers that make up the largest identifiable voting bloc that hold the biggest chunk of votes needed to win elections. But this property-owning middle-class, whether left or right leaning, is going to start declining in the next 20 years as the top-heavy Pākehā population start dying off. This will be happening at the very moment that Māori and Pasifica grow not only in numbers but in the percentage of the total population.

And although that section of the population is becoming increasingly diverse in educational and economic positions, it also makes up an increasing number of the working class and poor or marginalised, who are becoming not only increasingly desperate but also angry at being ignored.

If National is ignoring this dynamic, Labour has missed it and it paid at the polls for its negligence. At least four of the seven Māori electorate seats have gone to Te Pāti Māori. Another two – Tāmaki Makaurau and Te Tai Tokerau – Labour is just holding by a margin of fewer than 500 votes. Only in Te Ikaroa-Rāwhiti did Labour comfortably win. Those taken to the cleaners were all senior ministers.

This generational shift was particularly stark in the Hauraki-Waikato seat that has been held by Nanaia Mahuta since 1996 but was taken by 20-year-old Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke.

Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere said the party was being written off in the polls – as it was in the last election – but these numbers were not accounting for younger voters. It was those voters that he says gave them the edge on the night.

“I think a number of the polls have come up shy. We are unsurprised because of the energy on the ground. And when you extrapolate the numbers that have come with us. We struggle in the over-50s, the DNA is sort of bonded. But 18 to 25s are out the gate, 25 to 35s are there and we just have to split the other cohorts.”

Political strategist Matt McCarten said he’d spoken to people in Labour a week ago and was surprised that they were concerned about the Hauraki-Waikato seat.

“That surprised me. I just assumed that Nanaia would be safe. I’d ask them about the other seats, Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, and Te Tai Hauāuru and I thought the Māori Party would win three seats, and had a chance in Auckland, Tāmaki Makaurau. And they said, ‘the seat we’re worried about is Nanaia’s seat.’ And so I was a bit surprised. And they said, ‘she thinks she’s in trouble.’”

McCarten says the loss of Hauraki-Waikato and Te Tai Tonga in the South Island was also a big surprise given Labour held those two seats when the Māori Party first challenged Labour.

“Te Tai Tonga and Hauraki-Waikato withstood the Māori Party. And now the ironic thing is, those two are the ones that have gone.”

McCarten says there are a number of dynamics going on in the shift, that he thinks will become somewhat permanent.

“The Māori electorate is younger. Obviously, that’s been happening, but there’s been a drift of young Māori to enrol in the Māori seats. A lot of the more conservative voters and older voters have been going away from the Māori seats. And so there’s a fight between the Māori Party and Labour.”

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer talks to media on election night. Photo: Aaron Smale. 

But underlying this is another failure by Labour – after holding an outright majority over the last three years, it has failed to address the increasing economic inequalities that are continuing to widen along racial lines.

“They have completely squandered the last three years, completely squandered it.”

It has also failed to hit back at the race-baiting from the right because its leaders have no understanding of their own racism let alone that of their opponents. He said Labour’s strategies on subjects like co-governance were badly articulated and this opened a gap for National, Act and NZ First to attack them on race. 

“No work was done about winning the public debate on it. You have to do that first. Then the attempts to try and explain it made it worse.”

And its white, liberal, middle-class leaders have assumed that Māori would naturally flock to their cause, when they had no idea what that cause was any more.

“It was the Labour Party’s job to articulate the voice of the struggle, street people. And don’t do it any more. So, the Maori Party played a very clear class position.”

“Māori are part of that working class. It’s about the economic issues of fairness, and so you’ve got the Māori Party now articulating for the poor and those who are marginalised, which is a significant amount of Māori. And then you’ve got the pride of the young ones coming through and say, you know, they have confidence, you know, we don’t have to bow.”

He says if Labour’s Māori candidates were disconnected from their voters, their Pākehā colleagues in the party and on the left generally are even further removed.

“They look down on the working class. ‘We love the poor, but they smell.’ Because they’re not part of them. They’re in the leafy suburbs, the hip suburbs, the Grey Lynns of this world. And they don’t live amongst the working class, they’re not of them. They are missionaries. That’s what Labour does, ‘we do nice things for people. But we don’t rock the establishment, we don’t rock the middle classes. We keep them quiet.’

“You can’t save dumbness. Labour lost. National didn’t win. Because Labour lost half its vote and National got under 40 percent. Well, that’s not a resounding victory.”

“And that’s part of a worldwide thing, that the people who run the left, whether they’re the union movement, NGOs, civil society, or political parties, social democratic parties, there’s a disconnect. It represents middle class values. But the core of the Labour Party or the labor movement, or the movements, it’s economic, paying rent, putting food on your table, security, work. What happens around the world is that the traditional social democratic parties have focused on issues that the middle class people are concerned about. And so they’re appealing to that, and it’s to be respectable.

McCarten says Labour’s outright majority in the last three years was a chance to do something significant, but they missed that opportunity.

“Since Clark and those who have followed, it’s managerialism – we manage capitalism better and we’re nicer. That’s the pitch they’ve got, but it doesn’t work for the working poor.

“They’re not visionaries, they’re just nice people. Well fuck that, when you’re poor, you don’t care if they’re nice or not nice. You just want hope.”

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

Leave a comment