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Jacinda Ardern speaks during the Labour election night party at the Auckland Town Hall. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern speaks during the Labour election night party at the Auckland Town Hall. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

BooksNovember 13, 2021

Colin James: Ardern’s 2020 election victory and the echoes of history

Jacinda Ardern speaks during the Labour election night party at the Auckland Town Hall. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern speaks during the Labour election night party at the Auckland Town Hall. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Colin James has now covered NZ elections across seven decades. Here, he assesses Labour’s latest win within that context, in one of a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Politics in a Pandemic.

The 1969 election, the first of 16 I covered as a journalist, came at the “beginning of the end” of “a time of mildness and hope” and “a modest affluence for all”, as two contemporary writers (MK Joseph and Bill Oliver) described the post-World War II period.

A wool price plunge shortly after the 1966 election had forced an exchange rate devaluation which precipitated a long unravelling of the industrial conciliation and arbitration system. An infamous nil wage order by the Arbitration Court in 1968, intended to force a downward adjustment in real household income to make the devaluation stick, was upended by a peace pact by unions, employers and the government. Through 1968 there were rowdy demonstrations by a rising generation against the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons, sport with apartheid South Africa and much else. These eased temporarily in 1969. An opinion poll put Labour marginally ahead a week out from the election. Senior National ministers contemplated defeat.

But Opposition Labour was led by a man too fat to be prime minister, according to his secretary, Margaret Hayward. A fight between the Seamen’s Union and the decrepit Union Steamship Company flared as election day approached and Labour minister Tom Shand played it up. Sir Keith Holyoake squeezed into a fourth term which he would not see out as prime minister.

This was a “fishtail” election: National’s lead narrowed, then widened at the end. Twelve years later, in 1981, a similar promising poll and promising canvassing signs on the ground for Labour also ended in a “fishtail”, again keeping National in power. Another 1981 light echo with 1969: Labour’s leader, Bill Rowling, was outgunned on the hustings by National leader Rob Muldoon, a commanding, though divisive, figure.

Between 1969 and 1981 there were two landslides and a landslip. In 1972 Hayward’s “fat man”, Big Norm Kirk, by then trimmed and tailored and backed by a rising cohort of “modernisers” in key shadow cabinet roles, swept aside Holyoake’s successor, Jack Marshall, who had secured a good deal over Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community but headed a tiring cabinet. Labour’s majority was 55 seats to 32. Kirk’s first year in office was stoked by high commodity prices, but these slid in the second year after the collapse of the post-1945 Bretton Woods system, precipitating international currency volatility, and then a dramatic spike in oil prices driven by the Middle East oil- producing nations. New Zealand’s already unbalanced economy was skewed further.

Kirk died in 1974, succeeded by Rowling, his minister of finance. In 1975, populist Muldoon exactly reversed the 1972 landslide for a 55–32 National majority on promises of economic stability, an unsustainably generous superannuation scheme to wow older voters and resumption of sport, especially rugby, with apartheid South Africa, which appealed to those he called the “ordinary bloke”, whose ally he unequivocally declared himself. Foreshadows of Donald Trump.

In 1978 the landslide reversed again, this time in a landslip. Labour beat National in the popular vote by 0.6% – after opinion polls had given National a 7-9% lead going into the campaign. Boundary and other distortions nevertheless gave National an 11-seat majority over Labour. In 1981 National led 7-10% in pre-campaign polls but Labour again won the popular vote – by 0.2%. And National again beat Labour – but this time by only 47 seats to 43.

By then the “modest affluence for all” era had fizzled out. High budget and balance of payments deficits, soaring government debt and ever tighter but futile regulation to try to fix the mess marked Muldoon’s final years. The noisy protesters of 1968 took control of Labour with some slightly older fellow-travellers. Outside parliament, divisive street battles in 1981 over a tour by the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, plus rising demands by a new generation of Māori for redress and respect put an end to “mildness and hope”. Revolution was in the air.

Which is what that rising generation gave us in six years of Labour governments from 1984 and two years of an uncharacteristically radical National government from 1990: a fully independent nation, nuclear-free, on the path towards a bicultural society; a much more open and liberal society; and a deprotected, highly deregulated economy, delivered with massive disruption and seriously high unemployment and inequality.

Prime minister David Lange, left, and finance minister Roger Douglas peruse a copy of Douglas’ book Towards Prosperity, 1987 (Photo: John Nicholson for Evening Post via National Library)

In 1987 Labour lifted its previous 44% vote to 48%, recruiting large numbers of National-leaning supporters of Labour’s pro-market economic reforms. But those reforms were out of character for Labour and cost it growing numbers of its old core wage worker (“ordinary bloke”) votes – few Labour MPs were wage workers. After the sharemarket crashed in October 1987 desertions swelled to a flood. MP and former party president Jim Anderton carried off dissident Labourites into a NewLabour party – actually old-Labour wanting a return to pre- reform policies.

In 1990 Labour’s vote plunged 13 points to 35%. National stormed to 48% but then in 1993 itself plunged 13 points to 35%. This eerie echo of 1972–75 in reverse came after large numbers rejected National’s out-of-character radicalism and members and MPs deserted, notably 1990–91 minister Winston Peters, who formed the populist economic and social nationalist New Zealand First Party, pining for a Muldoon rerun.

There was another eerie echo in the 1993 election – of 1978. A 10-point National opinion poll lead a couple of weeks out from the 1993 election all but evaporated into a tiny 0.4-point lead over Labour in votes – “bugger the pollsters”, National prime minister Jim Bolger grumped on election night. With 50 seats out of 99, Bolger had only a one-seat majority over Labour, who had 45 seats, and New Zealand First and the Alliance (Anderton’s NewLabour plus the Greens and two other micro- parties), each with two seats. He tempered this by recruiting Labour’s Peter Tapsell as speaker. Helen Clark, newly installed as Labour leader by a coup against Mike Moore, acquiesced because she didn’t want another election.

More important, the 1993 election ended another era: that of first-past- the-post single-member constituency voting (FPP). Voters rebuked both old parties for their radical departures from party traditions by backing a referendum replacing FPP with the mixed-member proportional system (MMP) recommended by a royal commission in 1986 and, curiously, put to the vote by Bolger.

Forecasting elections up to 1993 was relatively straightforward: absorb as much information as possible from as many sources as possible, winnow it and work out which of the two old parties would get the most seats. That also required assessing the impact on the two old parties of any significant third parties, such as Social Credit, which won a by- election in 1978, got 16% of the vote and retained that one seat in the general election that year, then won another by-election in 1980 and 21% of the vote in the 1981 general election but ended up with only two seats.

MMP introduced new complications, for voters and for forecasters. Under FPP voters chose a government from the two big parties or voted for something else in protest. Voting for a government was not so straightforward from 1996 because a vote for a small party could end up as a vote for a government which that party chose to join, even if most voters for that small party did not want that big party in power.

I got 1996 wrong. Labour hit its hoped-for target of 28%, thanks in large part to Helen Clark’s driving up of the “worm” in the first leaders’ debate. That was not a convincing basis on which to form a coalition government with Jim Anderton’s Alliance and National renegade Winston Peters’ New Zealand First version of old-National, even though most of those who voted for New Zealand First wanted it to go with Labour. On the other hand, the language Peters had used of National, including that Bolger was not fit to be prime minister (he had sacked Peters as a minister in 1991), and the language Bolger and others used of New Zealand First and Peters, strained to breaking point credibility that they could or would work together. But, as Peters’ adviser Michael Laws later pointed out in dismay, Peters saw National as “family”.

In fact it did prove incredible that Peters and National could work together. The family reconciliation was makeshift – and temporary. In November 1997 Jenny Shipley ousted Bolger to make National “blue” again. In August 1998 she fired Peters, whose party fractured, enough of its MPs backing Shipley to keep her in office.

By 1999 a Labour-led government with the Alliance was an easy bet – they had made up in 1998. It turned out to be a minority government, though one supported by the Greens. Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons won Coromandel when Labour voters got the message that the Greens might be needed for a majority. Had Margaret Wilson, Labour’s candidate in Tauranga, told voters to vote for the candidate mostly likely to beat Peters there, his 63-vote plurality over National’s Katherine O’Regan would probably have evaporated and New Zealand First would have been removed from parliament.

The next five elections were easy bets, too. First came nine years of Helen Clark’s building a “third way” to calm middle New Zealand down after the 1980s-90s turmoil. Then nine years of Sirs John Key and Bill English running a moderate-liberal/moderate-conservative party reminiscent of the strong National governments of the 1950s and 1960s, with some rightwards adjustment to Clark’s “third way” policy settings.

The 2002 election was notable for Labour’s 11-point slide from its pre-campaign poll ratings to a 41% result – echoes of 1978, 1981 and 1993. But that was overshadowed by National’s collapse to 21% in the party vote, though with 31% in the electorate vote it had a base to rebuild from. Anderton’s Alliance had disintegrated in 2001 when faced with the need to accept that politics is the “art of the possible”, which limits ideological ventures – a lesson the Greens may be learning now, though that is far from clear yet and may not be known until they are accountable in a two-way coalition with Labour.

For Clark, the Greens were too far off-centre. From 2002 to 2005 she linked up with liberal former Labour and National minister Peter Dunne, who had shacked up with conservative Christians, a marriage of convenience which could not and did not endure. In 2005 Clark turned to New Zealand First, with Winston Peters as minister of foreign affairs. There was an eruption in Clark’s reign: the Māori Party, formed by Labour minister Tariana Turia, who departed Labour when it legislated to overturn a Court of Appeal decision on governance of New Zealand’s foreshore and seabed, which some iwi claimed as their right. The Māori seats, long locked into Labour – though they had gone to New Zealand First in 1996 – mostly deserted again in 2005. From 2008 Turia’s Māori Party delivered proxy Labour votes to National through nine years of confidence and supply agreements. The gain to Māori was Whānau Ora, Māori-run health and family care.

In 2017, as National was anticipating a fourth term, there came another eruption: Jacinda Ardern. Made Labour leader 53 days before the 2017 election, her younger generation, macro-personality dazzle rescued Labour from 27% in 2011, 25% in 2014 and around 24% and sliding in opinion polls in July 2017. At 37 years of age and with 37% of the vote she formed a three-way coalition and governing arrangement with the ageing Winston Peters and the Greens.

Picking this one correctly required an assumption that National would not or could not replicate 1996 and make whatever policy concessions it would take to stay in power. One clue was that Peters no longer saw himself as “family” with National. Another was that his party wanted economic policy changes that required movement in Labour’s direction. A third was that behind the scenes Jacinda Ardern proved a skilful negotiator, smart and personable. Those clues pointed marginally towards Labour.

Echoes of 1984: the 2017 election marked a substantial generational shift to more than 40% post-baby-boomers in parliament. Most of the key ministers were of those new X and Y generations. But the Winston Peters “handbrake”, as he called it it, on policy that strayed too far from his take on what middle New Zealand wanted or would tolerate constrained how much “transformation” (to use Jacinda Ardern’s word) could be achieved.

The cost to Peters and New Zealand First in 2020 was a history repeat. In the final year of its previous two stints in government, in 1999 and 2008, New Zealand First polled below 5% leading up to the campaign and finished below 5% in the election. Low polling through 2018 and 2019 and into 2020 pointed to a sub-5% election score. Peters and New Zealand First were duly ejected, with a humiliating 2.6% vote.

The 2020 election will be remembered for Labour’s extraordinary vote: for the first time in nearly 70 years, a party topped 50%, even if only by 0.0115194321561 percentage points. That gave it an MMP first: a single-party majority of seats. It will be remembered, too, for National’s post-1935 record 18.8 percentage point plunge to 25.6% from 44.4% in 2017. Labour had a 24.4-point lead over National, 4.1 points more than its 20.3% lead in 2002.

Did Labour owe its majority only to Covid-19 and Ardern’s intelligent, firm and inclusive management, which pushed her already strong approval ratings stratospheric and triggered turmoil in National? At a guess Covid may have added 5–8% to Labour’s score. But pre-Covid, through 2018 and 2019 and into 2020, Labour polled competitively with National and, with the Greens, ahead of National plus ACT. A second term was always more likely than not.

A quick scan of the age of this parliament’s MPs suggests a majority of post-baby-boomers: the new era which the 2017 election foreshadowed. Baby-boomers will hang around, but their influence will wane. The question now is: will Jacinda Ardern’s first unconstrained term in office echo 1984 or 1972? She is in command; just look at her face and her gait now compared with last term. But what commands will she issue?

As in 1969, the 2017 election came after the settled world had begun to fray; in 2020 that fraying had turned to turbulence as the geo-economy and geopolitics rebalanced. That has unsettled the foundations of the “third way”. Will Ardern in her second term respond to this “beginning of the end” of the order she grew up in? Will she be vigorously transformative in policy areas such as climate change, ecosystem protection, foreign affairs, tax, health, welfare and housing? That is, will she reposition and reframe Aotearoa New Zealand? That would echo 1984.

Or will Ardern echo Kirk in 1972 and be a pivot, continuing to modestly adjust the “third way” while pointing in some policy areas (climate change? Māori development?) towards a later government, in 2029 or 2032, made up of Green star Chlöe Swarbrick contemporaries, which might merge necessity with radicalism in a genuinely serious transformation?

This is an edited extract from Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 Election, ed Stephen Levine (VUP)

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