Opinion: The seeds of Labour’s election defeat were sown before the 2020 election. Labour’s extraordinary victory in 2020 on the back of its initial handling of the Covid-19 response masked the fact that the polls had been turning against it from the start of 2020. Failure to deliver on key 2017 election promises such as Kiwibuild and light rail in Auckland by 2020 had already marked the Government down as all talk, but little action.
The last Colmar Brunton poll before the first lockdown rated National’s support at 46 percent, comfortably ahead of Labour on 41 percent. At that point, Labour was looking like following its 1957-60 and 1972-75 predecessors as a one-term wonder. But all that changed with Labour’s initial response to the arrival of Covid-19. The first Colmar Brunton poll after the March 2020 lockdown showed overwhelming approval for the Government’s actions. Labour’s support had jumped by 18 points to 59 percent, while National’s support had slumped by 17 points to 29 percent.
Labour continued to ride the Covid-19 wave through to that year’s October election, receiving just over 50 percent of the party vote – its highest vote share since 1938 – while National slipped to just 26 percent, its second-worst result in that time. Over the next year, Labour’s dominance continued, although its support started to wane as various pandemic restrictions remained, and the Government was initiating little other new policy. By October 2021, Labour’s average poll support was just under 43 percent, down, but still far ahead of National’s static level of 25 percent.
By the end of 2021, the public – especially those in Auckland for whom Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s “short, sharp” August lockdown had extended for 107 days – were well and truly over Labour. National had been boosted by the emergence of Christopher Luxon as leader, and its support began to rise steadily – to just over 38 percent in February 2022, ahead of Labour for the first time since the advent of the pandemic.
The sober reality is that no government – whether National or Labour-led – that has involved New Zealand First as either a coalition or confidence and support partner has survived beyond three years
Labour never recovered after that. Though it remained close to National in the polls throughout 2022, neither it nor its allies had the numbers after March 2022 to form another government, save for a brief period in early 2023 after Chris Hipkins took over as Prime Minister. The writing was on the wall for Labour. Its popularity began to slip away more markedly in the second half of 2022 as the Covid-19 aura receded and the cost-of-living crisis bit heavily on New Zealand households. By the end of last year, Labour’s support had fallen below 30 percent. Ardern stood down in January 2023, saying she had “nothing left in the tank” to fight another election.
Under Hipkins, Labour received an initial upward blip in its support, although nothing like the bounce of 2020. His policy bonfire, which had taken many contentious items off the political agenda, was initially well-received by the public, until they realised there was nothing there to replace it. When the massive, disruptive impact of the tragic disasters caused by Cyclone Gabrielle was added to the near six-year record of non-delivery on its key promises, Labour looked tired and finished as a government by mid-year.
Hipkins’ captain’s call on wealth and capital gains taxes and an election campaign built around warning people of the risks of electing a National-led government reinforced the impression that Labour was out of ideas of its own. Its ham-fisted policies to take GST off fresh fruit and vegetables and introduce free dental care for under 30s from 2025, looked desperate and disjointed, so were largely disbelieved. Increasingly, Labour became defined by what it was against, rather than what it was for.
Labour’s long-term demise, built around its fundamental inability to deliver good policy had been evident from 2019. That made Labour’s defeat inevitable, once Covid-19 was off the political agenda. It also means that in its reassessment of what went wrong, Labour will need to work out why it proved incapable of implementing its big ideas, and how that deficiency can be rectified if future Labour-led governments are to be more successful.
On the other side of the ledger, though, there are still some major challenges, beyond government formation, for National. Though the party has won a significant election victory – increasing its vote share by just over a third on its 2020 result – it still has work to do to secure a long-term electoral base. On the preliminary results, National won about 39 percent of the party vote. By comparison, Sir John Key came to office in 2008 with 45 percent of the party vote. National was able to grow that figure to just over 47 percent at the 2011 and 2014 elections, but even then, required the support of Act, Te Pāti Māori and UnitedFuture to govern.
National needs therefore to be looking to grow its party vote share by about 10 points to be confident of holding office after 2026. Its task will be made a little easier if it can hold most of the electorate seats it won this time, as that will make its reliance on the party vote a little less. However, things may become more complicated if National enters a significant governing arrangement, as seems more than likely, with New Zealand First. The sober reality is that no government – whether National or Labour-led – that has involved New Zealand First as either a coalition or confidence and support partner has survived beyond three years.
National comes to office at a difficult time, and with a policy agenda that will be hard to achieve. Labour’s defeat shows clearly that voters treat policy failure by governments harshly. They will be no different when it comes to assessing National’s performance at the next election. Alongside that, just holding the line will not be enough. National must not only deliver on its policy, but also substantially grow its party vote if it is to win again.
Christopher Luxon says he thrives on challenges. They do not come much bigger than the one he has just embarked on.