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A lot of people are ‘flirting’ with the smaller parties. Image: Tina Tiller
A lot of people are ‘flirting’ with the smaller parties. Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsJuly 19, 2023

The big noise from the small parties shaking up election 2023

A lot of people are ‘flirting’ with the smaller parties. Image: Tina Tiller
A lot of people are ‘flirting’ with the smaller parties. Image: Tina Tiller

Labour and National combined haven’t polled so low for more than 20 years. They’re struggling because of a lack of vision, knee-jerk responses and an absence of humility, say leaders of the parties nipping at their heels.

This week’s 1News Verian poll confirmed an important storyline in the leadup to the 2023 election. Not that it will be close (though it will, and let me be the first to say this election is on a knife-edge). But also that the smaller parties are in the ascendant, raring up against the status quo.

Or, to put it another way, the big purple fish – the National blue and the Labour red – are uncharacteristically weak. How weak? Here’s how the big parties’ combined support looks across 12 years of the 1News survey, conducted by a pollster that has variously been called Colmar Brunton, Kantar Public and now Verian. 

That result – 68% – is no outlier; the average across the latest polls from five companies put the Labour/National aggregate at 66.2%. And it is not just the lowest of the last dozen years. Not since the end of 2002 have the big two polled beneath a combined 70%. That followed a record low 20.9% election result for National, with Labour winning 41.26%. 

It wasn’t at that point an aberration, however, as far as the purple vote is concerned. The first three MMP elections saw Labour and National collect between them 62.1% in 1996, 69.2% in 1999 and 62.2% in 2002. 

In the six elections since, National and Labour have collected, on average, more than 77% of the vote between them. 

National’s campaign manager, Chris Bishop, told Newstalk ZB yesterday that he thought the polls were overstating the small parties’ prospects. “People like to flirt a bit. At the end of the day people do put their vote in the majors on election day.”  Certainly, there is no apparent risk of an upset to the central governing duopoly. But 75 days out from the start of advance voting, it very much looks like we will see the worst big-two result since 2002. 

The popularity of the small parties – or, perhaps the weakness of the big two – can be attributed to a handful of factors. Act prospered when National was doused in its Blue Blood years and defied political gravity to grow further with a novice caucus and as National recovered. 

At the same time, the two bigger parties are scrapping in earnest for the centre, in pursuit of the median voter grail. While it would be wrong to say the party pitches are indistinguishable, the political gods are surely having a laugh in giving both leaders the name Chris. The dash for the middle leaves plenty of room on their flanks – offering homes for parties keen to speak with greater substance and vigour on everything from climate change to economic fundamentals, from poverty to tax to te tiriti. Something similar happened in Australia last year, where the federal election produced the lowest result for the major parties on record.

Where are the remaining 32% of decided voters? (Their number, as in those above, excludes undecided or won’t-say respondents, who amount to 12% of the total in the latest 1News poll.)  Act – to the chagrin, no doubt, of founder Roger Douglas – is polling above 12%; the Greens around 9%. Both are comfortably over the 5% threshold. Te Pāti Māori is averaging a smidgen below 5%, but is highly likely to win at least one electorate, making the threshold moot. 

New Zealand First sit a little over 3% but – and, again, this is probably not an aphorism you’ve heard before – you can never write Winston Peters off. Top, on 2%, will almost certainly require Raf Manji landing his moonshot in Ilam. Based on the 1News Verian poll, however, which saw a clutch of fringe-right parties make an appearance, there would be about 7% “wasted vote” – about a percentage point higher than the MMP average. 

The minor chords

What do the leaders of the smaller parties themselves say? I asked them a couple of questions. Why are voters in 2023 snubbing the big two and looking to alternatives? And are they OK with being called small or minor parties, or is there a better option?

“ACT is attracting support because we do the job,” said David Seymour. “We listen and hear people's concerns then put forward well-thought-out solutions. Contrast that with the knee-jerk reactions from the old parties, and you start to appreciate why more Kiwis are voting ACT for real change.”

On epithets, he said: “We should all be called parties, without any modifier, because we are an equally valid choice for a voter who shares our values.”

James Shaw, co-leader of the Greens, said: “People can see that the two major parties are lacking any vision to deal with the challenges we face. People who are frustrated with Labour can see that the Green Party is the only option to push the government in the right direction.”

He took aim at the idea bigger parties can shrug and “rule out” smaller parties’ pledges. “We know that the pace of change is too slow, and people are frustrated with the tendency to stick to the status quo … Political leaders don’t get to decide what will and won’t happen after the election.”

As for labels, “this year it’s clear these parties will be more like powerbrokers than minor parties,” he said.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said this: “‘Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu’. Maybe it is small but its value is precious – there is a humility and relatability that comes from being small and leaving no one behind.”

Keep going!