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PoliticsSeptember 29, 2017

How did Labour’s immigration stance impact its immigrant vote?


Did Labour’s anti-immigration stance prevent it winning the 2017 election? Branko Marcetic crunches the numbers.

Immigration was perhaps the issue of 2017. Apparently inspired by the renewed popularity of New Zealand First and by events overseas – if you’re unsure what I’m referring to, quickly Google either “Brexit,” “Trump” or Le “Pen,” and then make your way back here – Labour and the Greens both adopted new anti-immigration policies to keep up. As a result of internal dissent, the Greens dropped theirs.

Labour didn’t.

Over the course of the year, Labour promised to slash immigration by 20,000-30,000 people per year, mostly by clamping down on international student visas. The policy may not have been particularly radical, but by focusing on immigrants as the cause of New Zealand’s ills (instead of, say, general underinvestment and a lack of a capital gains tax), the party opened itself up to accusations of xenophobia and other criticisms, particularly from Winston Peters, who gleefully pointed out he and his party had been “dumped on by all and sundry” for saying the same thing for years.

It didn’t help that Labour could be its own worst enemy on the issue. The party tried to seem reasonable and insisted the policy was about practicalities rather than race. But its Facebook page appeared to blame immigration for youth suicide, while Labour’s squeaky clean new leader, who maintained the policy when she took over, was compared to Donald Trump on the issue in the Wall Street Journal. This followed earlier “gaffes” of years gone by, such as David Parker’s poorly chosen description of “low-value immigration”, and housing spokesman Phil Twyford’s use of a combination of shoddy math and racial profiling to warn of offshore Chinese investors driving up Auckland’s house prices, for which he was roundly criticised, and over which staffer Phil Quin, who had been with the party for three decades, quit.

The question is, how much did this all factor into this year’s election result? We can say with some confidence that if Labour’s adoption of an anti-immigration plank was meant to be a vote-winning strategy, it had a negligible impact on its electoral fortunes, given Labour was polling at historically dreadful levels before the ascension of Jacinda Ardern turned things around for the party two months ago.

But could its anti-immigration stance have hurt the party, or even cost it the election? To help answer the question, I analysed electoral statistics from the last two elections, along with the proportion of an electorate’s residents who were born overseas and the origin of their birthplace, as outlined on the Parliament website’s electoral profiles.

A caveat: these figures have their limitations, as special votes are yet to be counted. Because the preliminary results of the 2014 election (before the special votes were tallied) are not available anymore, the amount by which Labour increased its vote from 2014 could well be higher or lower come October 7 – though history suggests higher is the more likely outcome.

Nonetheless, even with this caveat, we can see some clear trends. Here are some key takeaways:

1. Labour tended to lose the party vote in high-immigrant electorates

Some have already speculated that Labour’s poor performance in Auckland – at least compared to its gains in other parts of the country – were the cause of its ultimately underwhelming, albeit much improved, election result this year. If the numbers are anything to go by, immigrant numbers were a large reason for this.

All but one (looking at you, Helensville) of Auckland’s electorates have a proportion of residents who were born overseas that’s higher than the New Zealand average of 23.6% – often much higher. And many of them went National’s way. East Coast Bays, where 47.4% of residents were born overseas, gave 63% of its vote to National. New Lynn, where 42.7% were born overseas, put National over Labour by eight points. Pakuranga, with a 44.1% foreign-born population, went 62.9% for National. Te Atatū, where 34.3% of residents were born overseas – and where Phil Twyford was a candidate – went narrowly for National, 43.3% to 41.9%.

And this isn’t to mention other National strongholds with high foreign-born numbers, such as Botany, Epsom, North Shore, or Upper Harbour.

There were outliers, of course. Labour surged and very nearly won in Auckland Central, where 46% were born overseas. It also won Mt. Albert and very nearly took Mt. Roskill both, high-foreign-born electorates. Meanwhile, Helensville and Papakura, electorates whose foreign-born populations were roughly on par with the country as a whole, also went handily to National.

All of this is also not to suggest that foreign-born voters are single-issue voters, who vote purely on the subject of immigration. Nor is it to dismiss other factors. After all, many of the electorates National handily won, such as those in East Auckland and the North Shore, are not only National strongholds, but tend to be higher-income areas, natural constituencies for National. Former National staffer Ben Thomas also speculated in this week’s ‘Gone by Lunchtime’ podcast that recent immigrants might have a bias toward the ruling party.

Nonetheless there is a clear trend: if an electorate had a higher proportion of residents born overseas, they tended to go for National.

abour Party Spokesperson for Auckland Issues, Phil Twyford (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

2. Labour made most of its gains where there were less immigrants

The opposite is true as well: Labour’s best gains were in electorates where a lower proportion of voters were born overseas than the national average. Greg Presland crunched the numbers over at The Standard and found Labour made its biggest gains in places like the rural South Island, Northland, Christchurch and, particularly, Dunedin. These are all areas with relatively low immigrant numbers.

Dunedin North and especially Dunedin South are both below the national average in terms of residents born overseas. Labour won them by 19 and 11 points, respectively. It surged in places like Kaikōura, Port Hills and Waitaki, and won – albeit just barely – low-immigrant, urban electorates like Mana, Rimutaka, Rongotai, and Christchurch Central (though the latter may have been a referendum on the frustration over the Christchurch rebuild).

Of course, Labour also won Wellington Central by a little under five points, an electorate where 30.3% of residents are born overseas, complicating the picture. In fact, this wasn’t the only high-immigrant area Labour won, which brings up the next point…

3. Labour’s vote depended on the type of immigrant community

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Labour won Wellington Central: by far the largest share of its foreign-born residents are from the UK and Ireland.

A clear pattern among Labour’s results is that the specific type of immigrant community in an electorate tended to influence its result in predictable ways. Although the Parliament electorate profiles only document three different birthplace categories – UK & Ireland, Pacific Islands and North East Asia – these are enough to draw out a clear trend: namely, that Labour did better among immigrant communities that were predominantly from the first two categories, and worse among those from the latter.

Thus, Labour overwhelmingly won the Auckland electorates of Kelston, Māngere, Manukau East and Manurewa, all of which have high proportions of foreign-born residents, the majority of whom were born in the Pacific Islands (Kelston is the only exception, with 33.2% of its foreign-born residents born in the Pacific Islands – not a majority, but still dwarfing the other categories). The Wellington electorates in which Labour eked out wins – Mana, Rimutaka, Rongotai – while not high-immigrant areas, do have residents born in the Pacific Islands and the UK and Ireland as the majority of their overseas-born populations.

Meanwhile, look at the electorates National dominated in in Auckland: Botany, East Coast Bays, Epsom, North Shore, Northcote and Pakuranga, to name a few. All of these are places where those born in North East Asia make up either the highest or a very high percentage of foreign-born residents. Only 27% of Rodney’s residents were born overseas, but just over half of them came from North East Asia, while the other two major categories were negligible – and 60% of that electorate ended up voting for National.

So why might these immigrant communities vote such starkly different ways? It’s not a stretch to assume incidents like the Twyford “Chinese names” debacle may have turned voters hailing from the broad category of “North East Asia” off Labour.

But don’t rhetoric and policies around immigration affect all immigrants, regardless of national origin? True. But it could well be that they sting particular groups more.

After all, when politicians talk about the issue of “immigration” in the New Zealand contest, they typically aren’t assumed to be referring to European immigrants – they, after all, aren’t considered immigrants, but rather expats (a classier term solely reserved for white people) and have not typically been the target of anti-immigration fervour in our history.

Meanwhile, Labour has historic ties with the Pasifika community, and many of the heavily Pasifika electorates in Auckland that Labour won are also on the lower end of the income spectrum. This may have gone some way toward balancing out the negative effect of Labour’s anti-immigration stance.

None of this should make us ignore the outliers, such as Auckland Central, in which Labour surged this year despite nearly 30% of its foreign-born population being from North East Asia. Nor should it obscure the fact that Labour made gains even in areas with higher numbers of Asian immigrants. Speaking of which…

4. Labour made gains in electorates with higher numbers of Asian immigrants

It’s important to note that despite its anti-immigration policies and “gaffes,” Labour still increased its share of the vote in areas with higher proportions of foreign-born residents from North East Asia.

It shot up 10.6 points in East Coast Bays since 2014. It jumped 9.5 in Epsom. It surged 11 points in North Shore, 11.7 in Northcote, and 8.2 in Upper Harbour. Labour’s vote percentage didn’t decrease in any of these electorates since 2014.

In fact, while every party in these and other electorates saw their number of total votes decrease since 2014, owing to the fact that special votes haven’t been added to the totals yet, Labour saw its total number of votes increase, suggesting it will do much better come October 7. In the North Shore and East Coast Bays, Labour’s total number of votes increased by more than half the number of special votes cast last year. In fact, in Rodney, the amount of votes it’s already gained is only 152 fewer than the 4090 special votes cast there in 2014, while National’s vote total is 400 votes fewer than its final 2014 result.

Of course, it won’t become clear what exactly this means until the special votes are counted. Perhaps most of them will go to the Greens, for instance. It’s also hard to know exactly how these communities voted. It could be the entirety of the Asian vote in these electorates went to National and the Greens, and it was Pākehā and other voters who were solely responsible for Labour’s increases. More likely, some Asian voters may have been caught up in Jacindamania, decided all was forgiven and went for the party anyway.


What does all this mean? Labour hasn’t been outright punished for its anti-immigrant stand, at least not since Ardern took over. However, the path of the campaign coupled with these figures suggest it certainly didn’t do the party any favours this year.

Its anti-immigration stance failed to give the party the boost it was looking for while Andrew Little was in charge, sending the party to the polling doldrums. Meanwhile, even with Ardern clawing back numbers for the party, the electoral figures show that the party continues to struggle in immigrant-heavy electorates in Auckland, particularly those with a larger proportion of residents born in North East Asia.

It’s doubtful these voters voted purely on the basis of immigration. But if Labour wants to win them over, its anti-immigration plank may well make it harder to do so, particularly when National vows to keep immigration numbers the same and for the most part avoids vocally flogging the issue.  

Unless Winston Peters has his way, immigration from this part of the world will only become a more and more important voting bloc. Labour will have to be careful it doesn’t alienate them for an entire generation.

Keep going!