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People exercise along Tamaki Drive on Auckland’s waterfront on August 24, 2021. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
People exercise along Tamaki Drive on Auckland’s waterfront on August 24, 2021. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 16, 2023

Labour forgot Auckland in October of 2021. Two years on, the city made it remember

People exercise along Tamaki Drive on Auckland’s waterfront on August 24, 2021. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
People exercise along Tamaki Drive on Auckland’s waterfront on August 24, 2021. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

The strain of the 2021 lockdown left Auckland seething while the rest of the country went about its business. The city never forgave Labour.

When a party loses almost half its vote share, it’s inevitable a raft of shattering statistics will undergird that. But even setting aside the historic and entirely unrepeatable aberration of 2020, the punishment inflicted on Labour in Auckland is stunning in its brutality. The city’s west has been an iron Labour stronghold for decades – Chris Hipkins was the party’s first leader of the 21st century not to hold an electorate in those suburbs. That loyalty held even through prior wipeout elections, like David Cunliffe’s doomed 2014 campaign.

Labour’s party vote share then was 27.5%, near-identical to this year’s result. Yet still its electorates remained rock solid, and it held Mt Albert, Mt Roskill, New Lynn and Te Atatū by a combined 26,117 votes. Based on preliminary results, it has lost three of those electorates, with National’s candidates gaining a combined 1,806 more votes than Labour’s could collectively manage.

The map is strewn with similarly shocking statistics. In Auckland Central, previously a tightly-contested electorate, Labour’s Oscar Sims gathered just 1689 votes. Some of this is down to the Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick hoovering up the left vote – but it’s still a shockingly low number for a major party candidate. By way of comparison, National’s Paul Goldsmith gained over 6,000 votes in David Seymour’s republic of Epsom. In Takanini, which includes some of Auckland’s most impoverished streets, National took nearly double Labour’s party vote.

Labour party 2023 campaign visit to Otara markets
Prime minister Chris Hipkins with the South Auckland Labour group visiting the weekly Ōtara markets, August 2023. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Losing such vast chunks of support in what were considered an impregnable wall of working class suburbs across the west will be a core part of the party’s prolonged soul-searching in the months and years to come. What is so striking about the result for Labour is that the rightward swing was not a nationwide phenomenon in our cities. In terms of predominantly urban electorates, of the 11 it lost to National in 2023, seven were in Auckland. In Wellington, by contrast, where it lost traditional Labour seats, it did so due to a leftward swing toward the Greens’ candidates.

The particular agonies of Auckland

The campaign was largely litigated on issues through the prism of how they affected the nation as a whole. The cost of living, a sense of escalating crime, falling attendance and achievement at school, a health system under severe strain. All were felt across New Zealand, but within Auckland, rightly or wrongly, there is a sense that each impacted this city more powerfully than the nation as a whole.

Tāmaki Makaurau has the country’s highest house prices and rents, along with a regional fuel tax pushing up the cost of commuting. The inner west has seen a number of high profile crimes, with the murders of dairy worker Janak Patel in Sandringham and Lena Zhang Harrap in Mt Albert, and the terrorist incident in New Lynn, all occurring this term. Auckland’s school attendance has often lagged behind the nation, and its hospitals have regularly made the news for wait times in emergency rooms and violence against staff.

That all sits in the air, infecting the general mood of the city. But along with these issues, the 2021 lockdown played a role as well. It generated an underappreciated amount of resentment towards Labour which came home to roost in this election. For those in the city, no reminder will be necessary, but here’s a refresher for those who didn’t live through it:

The city went into a level four lockdown on August 17, relaxing slightly to level three a month later, on September 22. While level three allowed some limited movement, it was still highly restrictive – there was the infamous clarification that while friends and family could gather outside, they could not go inside to use the bathroom. It was not until November 10 – just shy of three months later – that restrictions were finally relaxed. This was almost twice the length of the major 2020 lockdown.

Te Komititanga square, Britomart, on November 22, 2021 as the Auckland lockdown continued. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Two New Zealands in the spring of 2021

During that time, it felt like the city collectively lost its mind a little, particularly among parents with children. Those once-reliably Labour voting suburbs are a belt of families, with a clutch of enormous high schools the size of small towns. In the spring of 2021, parents there watched despairingly as their kids idled on phones just as the exams that would define their futures began. The New Lynn stabbing and Zhang’s murder both happened during the early stages of the lockdown, sitting heavily on an already sombre populace. And house prices reached their runaway apex, leaving many of those voters feeling locked out of whatever aspirations they had for life within the city.

All the while, we Aucklanders watched 1pm briefings and the 6pm news in extraordinary numbers, lacking for anything better to do. And there, each day, the glaring contrast between our lives and those in the rest of the country was unmissable. Around the motu, b-roll of kids at school, people playing sport, eating in restaurants, drinking in bars. All the ordinary pleasures and routines of life that we were denied.

This would have been a difficult scenario for any governing party, but Labour made it worse by seeming oblivious to the city’s plight. For a party which earned justified plaudits for its mastery of communication during the first national lockdown, its instincts deserted it during this one. It frequently teased major announcements, only to extend the agony further. While many of its citizens were double-vaccinated, that conferred no special privileges on them – only a faintly sanctimonious suggestion that we would be released when enough people (over whom we had no power or influence) joined us in that state.

Perhaps most mystifying and infuriating was the way its core leadership group – including prime minister Ardern, who represented an electorate here – either stayed away or made only fleeting visits to the city. Certainly not long enough to truly get its pulse. The workaday 6pm news footage of politicians looking at things took on a very different feel when those activities were indefinitely denied of your city. At times it felt like Auckland’s only value was as an economic engine, its residents working, often from home, so the rest of the country could happily live on as if nothing was happening.

This isn’t to issue a judgement on whether our furies and resentments were well-founded. The business of government needed to go on, and while you could quibble with the duration, it made sense to lock the city down while vaccinating at a pace. Visiting the city at all contravened rules being enforced by land borders. Still, having no senior MP based here, enduring it with us and transmitting that back to Wellington, made you wonder if the city had just been forgotten entirely.

Even when it ended, the moment felt like it just passed unremarked. There was no grand statement of gratitude to the city for its national service when the lockdown ceased. It just stopped. In conversations that summer with people from out of town, you would frequently hear surprise expressed at the length of the lockdown. Which is natural – if you didn’t go through it, you wouldn’t really recall it.

Those who lived through won’t ever forget it, though. Many people are still carrying some level of scar tissue from the myriad downstream impacts. Ultimately, while casting about for specific blame for electoral defeats is invariably inexact, the cause of the wipeout in Auckland feels traceable to those anguished months two years ago. When the city ached, and felt like Wellington barely knew. At least, until Saturday.

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