Opinion: The final results, barring recounts, of the 2023 election are in. On the face of it, they show a massive two-party swing of 18 percent from Labour to National since the 2020 election. However, a closer analysis shows this election was not the redefining election that swing would suggest, but rather a rebalancing one. The 2020 Covid-19 election was the anomaly.
The National/Act share of the vote this year was 47 percent – significantly higher than the 34 percent share they received in 2020 but comparable to the 45 percent share of 2017. Likewise, the Labour/Green vote share this year was 38.5 percent – well down on the 58 percent share of 2020 – but close to their 2017 total of 43 percent. If Te Pāti Māori’s 3 percent party vote share is added, the centre-left’s overall figure rises to 42 percent in 2023 – just one percentage point more than in 2017.
In that regard, this election was very much about a return to normal. In the end, the gap between the two main blocs was quite small – five percentage points this year, compared with two percentage points in 2017. That gap has been inflated in both elections by the presence of New Zealand First which received 6 percent of the party vote in 2023 and 7 percent in 2017 and was a key component of government formation after both elections.
As the 54th Parliament begins, the relative positions of the parties need to be considered against that background.
Most worrying for Act is that the decline from mid-year is matched by the rise in NZ First support from that time, suggesting many wavering voters were worried Act could drag National too far to the right
National will be forgiven for enjoying its return to government after two terms in opposition, but its victory was a narrow one. Leaving aside the challenges it faces in establishing a workable governing arrangement with Act and NZ First, National begins the Parliamentary term with a very slim base of support. Its 38 percent party vote this year was lower than the 44 percent it received when it lost office in 2017, and lower than its vote share at each of the three earlier elections it won under Sir John Key. It is also lower than the 39 percent party vote National got under Dr Don Brash in 2005. In fact, in only the 2002 and 2020 elections (which were disasters for National) did the party poll lower than in 2023.
Offsetting National’s low level of party vote support was the extent of its success in the electorate contests. Almost all the provincial seats it lost in 2020 were regained, many by healthy margins. Much has been made of National’s inroads into Labour’s so-called Red Wall in West Auckland – but in the end only Mount Roskill and New Lynn fell to National. Retaining long-term the electorate seats it regained this year will be a bulwark against a declining future party vote, and therefore critical to National’s prospects after 2026.
For the next 18 months to two years, Labour is unlikely to be relevant to most people, so it has plenty of time to resolve these issues systematically and steadily before the 2026 election
Act will be approaching the coming Parliamentary term with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it will be a key party of government, more influential than it was in 2008-2017 under the previous National-led government, and it won the National fortress of Tamaki in addition to holding Epsom once more. But, on the other hand, its final party vote share of 9 percent was only one percentage point up on its 8 percent result in 2020, way below the 12-13 percent it was averaging in mid-year opinion polls. Most worrying for Act is that the decline from mid-year is matched by the rise in NZ First support from that time, suggesting many wavering voters were worried Act could drag National too far to the right.
The overall closeness of the election results show that all is not lost for Labour. Though there is no denying it was soundly rejected and has a substantial rebuild ahead to be a viable force in 2026, it is not an altogether unrealistic possibility that Labour could come back at the next election.
As well as ascertaining, then accepting and understanding, why voters dumped the party so unceremoniously, Labour needs to take a long, hard at itself, to first work out what it stands for, and then the relevance of its message to the constituency it seeks to attract. Only then does it need to consider matters of specific policy – such as wealth or capital gains taxes – and its future party leadership. For the next 18 months to two years, Labour is unlikely to be relevant to most people, so it has plenty of time to resolve these issues systematically and steadily before the 2026 election.
The Greens and Te Pāti Māori were the real election winners, despite ending up in opposition. The Greens clearly prospered from Labour’s policy indecision and timidity and there is no reason why it cannot grow its support further this term.
Te Pāti Māori is in a slightly different position. Its extraordinary result masks a challenge for the party. It won all but one of the Māori electorate seats but only 3 percent of the party vote. Obviously, it will want to solidify its hold on the electorates, but can it grow its party vote in the future, or is this as good as it gets?
NZ First remains the enigma of New Zealand politics. Though it will once again play a key role in government, doubts remain about the party’s future once its near-octogenarian leader finally moves on. What the party’s future brand will be then is not yet clear, let alone whether it has the depth of leadership to sustain that. The Phoenix can only rise so many times from the ashes.
The election results confirm that the last three years of single party majority government under Labour were an aberration, unlikely to be repeated soon. Politics has returned to the normal MMP state of multi-party government based around coalitions or confidence and supply agreements.
As business-as-usual resumes, many on the left, especially, will lament Labour’s failure to govern decisively during the last three years, when it had the chance to do so.