The myth of the missing million

For years left-wing politicians and activists have fantasised about the ‘missing million’ voters, and what they might do to an election if they returned. Danyl Mclauchlan argues that the million aren’t who we commonly imagine them to be.

A few days before the 2014 election I ran into the leader of a political party who shall remain nameless. They weren’t doing well in the polls but were still optimistic. “Apparently ten percent of all voters make their minds up on election day – so anything could happen!” They said this while bouncing up and down on their toes, eyes gleaming, obviously deeply lost in the fantasy that a hundred percent of this vacillating ten percent might swing behind their struggling party and sweep them to power.

This did not come to pass. The unfortunate leader’s hopes were typical of the unlikely stories that many intelligent, politically engaged people tell themselves when elections loom. One of the most common on the left is that of the “missing million”: a huge untapped reservoir of mostly young, currently non-voters who would – if left-wing parties would simply wake up and denounce neoliberalism – change everything. (The right-wing talk-radio version of this is that younger voters are too lazy and apathetic to vote: the millennials are ruining democracy, the same way they ruin everything, so they deserve to have crippling student debt and live in shitty rental homes forever.)

I used to believe in the missing million – the idea, if not the exact number. Voter turnout in New Zealand used to be around 90%. In 2011 it was 74.21%. Almost eight hundred thousand registered voters failed to vote. Obviously, I felt, these were people who agreed with my political beliefs but refused to vote because none of the choices presented a genuine alternative to the status quo.

I did have a few doubts about the missing million theory. Like:

If turnout is low because people don’t feel the existing parties represent real choice, why was it really high under FPP, when there were only two parties in Parliament and the only votes that really counted were a handful of swing votes in marginal electorates?

If non-voters wanted a radical change to the status quo why didn’t they vote for the Progressive Party or Mana or the Greens, who all, over the years, denounced neoliberalism and campaigned on platforms of radical change to the status quo?

In 2014 the Department of Statistics published a report on non-voters in the 2008 and 2011 general elections based on their General Social Survey – a study of 8,795 residents from randomly selected households. They found that a very high proportion of non-voters were neither woke-but-alienated radicals nor shiftless sexting millennial deadbeats. Instead the single highest predictor of being a non-voter was identifying as a recent migrant to New Zealand.

You probably haven’t noticed, because politicians and media commentators wouldn’t want to politicise the issue, but there have been high rates of non-anglosphere migration into New Zealand over the last two decades. In the GSS study of non-voters, long-term migrants (defined as those who arrived in New Zealand more than five years prior to the election) are represented at about the same level as New Zealand born non-voters (18.5% and 16.3%), while recent migrants – arrived less than five years prior to the election – comprise a massive 59.4% of non-voters. It looks like a significant component of our lower turnout might be driven by new residents disinclined to engage with the electoral system during their early years in New Zealand but who register and vote when they’re more established.

There’s another category of migrant that doesn’t get sampled in the GSS – New Zealand migrants to Australia or other parts foreign. There are an estimated 650,000 New Zealanders living in Australia, but only about 28,000 are registered on the electoral roll with Australian addresses, and only 14,000 of them voted in the 2014 election. I asked the Electoral Commission how many people could be registered on the electoral roll in New Zealand, at their last residential address, say, or a relative’s address, but who live overseas. “We’re not able to track that.” So that could be a couple of hundred thousand non-voters right there.

My other pet theory is that the decline in voter turnout might be linked to the rise in weekend trading, which also took off in the 1980s. There wasn’t an awful lot to do in New Zealand during the weekends in the early 80s, other than cast your vote once every three years. Are some people now too busy working and shopping to vote? Unfortunately the available data on average hours worked per week in the retail sector doesn’t go back far enough. I leave proving or disproving this as an exercise for a smarter and harder-working reader.

“All right,” you might say. “But what about what Jeremy Corbyn has just done in Britain?” Under Corbyn, British Labour openly embraced socialism and rejected the neoliberal status quo. The youth vote surged and he almost won the election! We know that some non-voters are young non-migrant New Zealanders. Why can’t Labour do the same thing here?

An anti-TPP protest in Auckland, New Zealand, August 2015 (image: Getty)

This is the argument that left-wing commentators and Young Labour activists have been blogging and tweeting and Facebooking about, and maybe even talking about verbally ever since Corbyn’s near-victory. They might be right! They’re definitely indulging in the Pundit’s Fallacy, in which commentators insist that a political party can win votes by doing whatever it is the commentator desperately wants them to do anyway, and cherry-picking data points to prove it. Others could just as validly point to Emmanuel Macron’s astonishing victory in France as proof that the voters desperately want centrist neoliberalism, or that Trump’s victory proves that nationalist populism is the way to go.

Voter turnout did rise in Britain this election – it’s been steadily increasing since 2001 – but is still much lower than ours. The initial reports of a huge youth surge were inaccurate (fake news!) but the youth vote did rise to roughly the same level it is in New Zealand, and the young were far more likely to vote Labour than older voters. Britain used to vote on class. Now the polarisation is generational.

But when you look at the political attitudes of non-voters in the New Zealand Electoral Survey, a longitudinal study of voting attitudes and behaviour, the results are not wildly encouraging for the left. When non-voters in the 2014 NZES were asked to rate the National government’s performance, over 70% thought that the government was doing a good job. This doesn’t mean they’d all vote National – 43% of Labour voters also thought the government were doing a good job. But it doesn’t point to the simmering discontent we’ve seen in the British and US elections.

Maybe things have changed since the last election? Maybe there is something in the air? According to Roy Morgan the percentage of people who ‘think the country is heading in the right direction’, is at 62%, almost exactly what it was before the 2014 election. Prior to the recent British election the government’s ‘right direction’ rating was literally half that.

Labour’s strategists seem to feel that they tried the Corbyn route last election, under Cunliffe, who embraced socialist rhetoric and led them to an historic defeat. Since then they’ve launched a free tertiary policy, very similar to Corbyn’s, which has won them no additional support – if anything they’ve declined. And a lot of British Labour’s vote came from UKIP, the now-collapsed British version of New Zealand First. If our next government is a National-New Zealand First government then a lot of those older, socially conservative voters will – in theory – become more available to Labour, a strategic option which will probably look pretty awful if taken.

But over the next ten years, Asian New Zealanders are projected to overtake Māori  as the second-largest ethnic group in New Zealand (although “Asian” is not so much an ethnic group as a vague and convenient category). If the findings in the GSS survey are correct, those who were recent migrants will become much more engaged with the political process. If so it will be increasingly difficult for major political parties to win elections without the support of those voters. Tricky decisions ahead for Labour, but I don’t think the hypothesised missing million desperate for radical change will be a huge factor in them.