Jacinda Ardern celebrating Labour’s victory on election night at the Town Hall in Auckland (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern celebrating Labour’s victory on election night at the Town Hall in Auckland (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 25, 2020

Expecting less – or more – of Labour’s new voters

Jacinda Ardern celebrating Labour’s victory on election night at the Town Hall in Auckland (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern celebrating Labour’s victory on election night at the Town Hall in Auckland (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

A unified rejection of the global trend towards right-wing strongmen or a blood debt from deeply conservative voters? Perhaps the election result was neither, writes Joseph Nunweek.

Going by some of the electoral post-mortems, the weekend of October 17 was some kind of 4D chess triumph of the New Zealand right. I don’t claim to hold any great insights into Aotearoa’s politics as someone who no longer resides in the country, but I have the simultaneous advantage of being too engaged by it while still only dipping in once every couple of days. If nothing else, distance lets me know when the discourse seems to go very weird, very quickly.

The prevailing attitude on Saturday night was that Jacinda Ardern’s version of the Labour Party had won a comprehensive generational victory, a unified rejection of the global trend towards right-wing strongmen and conspiratorial shadow-boxing. When I looked at Twitter again on Monday, Ardern had a precarious and knife-edge majority of strategic and mobilised lifelong National voters who had made the ultimate electoral sacrifice in supporting Labour to lock out the Green Party. She must move very carefully from here, self-styled commentators either scold or lament – the election result is a blood debt from deeply conservative voters, and the price to honour it is to not rock the boat on any form of economic, social or environmental change.

I didn’t predict that one before the election. In fact it’s curiously hard to know where the theory that Labour were gifted a qualified victory as a tactical sop took root – a long social media trawl suggests that cricketer turned final-boss landlord Mark Richardson initially riffed about voting Labour to keep out the Greens on The Project on October 1. On October 14, media chaplain Frank Ritchie asked his Twitter followers if they’d heard tell of the strategy being a real thing and received conflicting anecdotal accounts. 

Since election night, there’s been a steady stream of very circular discussion about the motivations of Labour’s 75-year high, and suddenly its persistent opponents have been reborn as psephologists overnight. Southland Federated Farmers have speculated that the bottom of the country saw a groundswell in strategic voting unmatched in its history. Meanwhile, The Press’s Mike Yardley confidently asserted that “half a million blue voters have entrusted Labour with their vote”, the salutary lesson being “to govern from the centre in its own right”.

Perhaps it came from Ardern herself. Early in her election night speech, she addressed the surge in Labour support as a priority:

“To those amongst you who may not have supported Labour before… and the results tell me there were a few of you… to you, I say thank you. We will not take your support for granted. And I can promise you, we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander. And governing for every New Zealander has never been so important… we are living in an increasingly polarised world. A place where, more and more, people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view. I hope that this election, New Zealand has shown that this is who we are – that as a nation we can listen and we can debate. After all, we are too small to lose sight of other people’s perspectives.”

I assume Ardern, who’s spent a year knowing when to defer to the experts, didn’t conduct a New Zealand election survey of her own on the way to the venue. In fact, I assume the speech wasn’t meant to signify a huge amount beyond the gregarious, big-tent rhetoric we’re conditioned to expect popular politicians give on the night of a huge win. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of positioning that’s been met (and will continue to be met) with an opportunistic glee from the right, worry on the left, and a lot of enduring mystery about what Labour without a delicate coalition would actually do.

I’m also not a psephologist, but I’m happy to suggest that some (but not many) ardent National voters voted Labour strategically. I’m happy to suggest some (but not many) voters across the entire country voted for a person or a party they profoundly disliked for an elaborate reason, in various combinations. But even waiting on the NZES, I’m willing to say that a lot of communities voted Labour, and for Jacinda Ardern, because they genuinely wanted to do so.

Going over the obvious reasons can verge on cloying at this stage. But here we go, because it’s worth restating: there was an international pandemic that killed over a million people worldwide this year and left countless countries and regions in an indefinite economically and psychologically destructive limbo. The NZ government prevented its large-scale spread exceptionally well relative to everyone else, and had a PM who communicated with empathy, positivity and occasional good humour. Meanwhile, the main opposition cycled through three leaders in what felt like a month.

It’s worth restating because it can get lost in a forest of politics-guy punditry and terminally online overdetermination of every last election facet. Some parts of that forest take useful and important stuff like electoral history and political theory and treat it like a form of predestination; some parts are preoccupied with niche culture-war garbage from too much time following events in the US; by far the worst parts involve the modern phrenology of messaging and communication “experts”. Paradoxically, once you’re confident enough to articulate some overarching view about what will happen in party politics based on what the voters really came for, you’re probably further away than ever from knowing the mind of a median voter.

Given what’s most likely and straightforward, the absolute worst thing Labour (and indeed, Labour sceptics on the left) could do is assume that the party’s success has attracted a bunch of fair-weather bigots and unreconstructed climate deniers, or even a bunch of fundamentally cautious and self-regarding centrists who bought a quick dose of the “be kind” mantra before regressing inexorably to a soft Tory mean. “Centrist” is a useful term for optics-brained columnists. For assessing the feelings of normal people, it’s next to useless. It is at once self-limiting and pessimistic for a movement or its supporters to assume that people cannot and will not develop and evolve their views, and indeed to assume that they didn’t with this election.

In recent New Zealand history, you can see it unfold in real time. From 2009 to 2015, support for the teaching of te reo Māori in schools from respondents to the longitudinal New Zealand Attitudes and Values survey consistently increased. The same data showed a steady increase in agreement that climate change is real and man-made. The issue of physical punishment of children, a flashpoint that was a focal point of mass marches and death threats to MPs as recently as 2008, has shifted – the number of adults who believe children should never be subjected to physical “discipline” increased by 23%. Many of these progressions, by their nature involving a consideration of the welfare and wellbeing of others, have occurred in suggestions where government support wavered or was muted. 

A week or so from now, we’ll know whether a majority of New Zealand voters will have endorsed the right of a minority to use cannabis without criminalisation or end their life with dignity. Labour’s new swell of supporters have been progressing themselves, even as the leader they voted for and admire played coy on some of these matters. A win on drug reform, or even a very close loss, won’t be Jacindamania from temporarily star-struck arch-conservatives. It’ll be a product of a lot of people making significant personal shifts in their world view on the basis of conversations and shared experience (in no small part, it has to be said, due to tireless campaigners). 

This isn’t to say that society’s trajectory will happily meander along on its merry and incremental way without hard decisions that persuade some and disappoint others. Recessions can harden and narrow anyone’s focus. There is no way a government this term can avoid acknowledging some of the pressing structural questions its predecessors ducked. But if you assume less of people, you’ll get less. For those who were already well on the Labour train themselves (or, for that matter, firmly with the Greens or Māori Party), this applies as well. This will be a very good time to bring people round to policies and initiatives you believe in and a very bad time for purity tests. Some of this may have to be done elsewhere than in front of a screen. In part, this serves as a note to self.

As for Ardern, her advisers and her cabinet – last year I wrote on this site about seeing her speak in Melbourne, and her emphasis on the need to “bring the people with you” in terms of electoral success. My misgiving was that merely bringing eligible and reliable voters was a reductive and ruthless definition of “people” – a calculation more likely to exclude the young, the criminalised, those in poverty. 

Nearly 50% of the vote. By any measure, she and Labour have brought the people with them now. It’s time to recognise that by and large, those people were “brought” by an appetite for kindness and compassion they don’t see when they look very far across the rest of the globe right now. Endlessly triangulating who the new supporters are and how to keep them satisfied will lead to inertia, attrition and cynicism, and I think that’s pretty much the end of any political moment. Perhaps we could take them at the face value of what made them arrive here.

Keep going!