An Emphatic Plurality: Bill English is on course to lead National into a fourth term with a greater share of the popular vote than “Kiwi Keith” Holyoake. Bearing in mind that, 50 years ago, New Zealand elected its governments according to the rules of First-Past-The-Post, that is nothing short of astonishing.
HERE’S A TRULY SOBERING FACT to take away from Saturday’s general election. Nine years after taking office, the National Party is more popular in 2017 than it was in 2008. John Key became New Zealand’s prime minister after securing 44.93 percent of the Party Vote for the National Party. Our caretaker prime minister, Bill English, will enter into negotiations with NZ First’s Winston Peters having secured 46 percent of the Party Vote for National on election night. For the first time since 1969, a New Zealand government looks set for a fourth term.
And get this: Bill English is on course for that fourth term with a greater share of the popular vote than “Kiwi Keith” Holyoake. Bearing in mind that, 50 years ago, New Zealand elected its governments according to the rules of First-Past-The-Post, that is nothing short of astonishing.
The Labour Party, by contrast, is celebrating “a remarkable comeback” with 35.8 percent of the Party Vote. But is it all that remarkable? When the First Labour Government lost power in 1949, it was with 47.2 percent of the popular vote. The Second fell in 1960, with 43.4 percent. When the hapless Bill Rowling was turfed out of office by Rob Muldoon in 1975, Labour’s share of the popular vote had fallen from 48.4 to 39.6 percent. In 1990, Labour racked-up just 35.14 percent as National’s Jim Bolger rolled over Battling Mike Moore to victory. And, when Helen Clark surrendered to John Key in 2008, Labour’s share of the Party Vote was just shy of 34 percent.
In other words, Labour is claiming a remarkable comeback on the strength of a popular vote share which, in past elections, has betokened decisive defeat.
Then again, Jacinda Ardern’s 35.8 percent (on Election Night) is just 2.94 percentage points less than the 38.74 percent of the Party Vote which carried Ms Clark to victory in 1999.
Except that, in 1999, Labour could count on the support of Jim Anderton’s Alliance (7.74 percent) and the Greens (5.16 percent) to assemble a centre-left Party Vote combo representing 51.64 percent of the electorate.
If we perform the same calculation on the basis of Saturday’s provisional results, the Opposition parties’ numbers add up to a tantalising 49.2 percent – and that number may cross the magic 50 percent threshold when Special Votes are counted. The question we are, thus, left to decide, is whether or not it is politically reasonable to assign the role played by the Alliance Party in 1999 to the NZ First Party of 2017.
The only reasonable answer is – No.
Winston Peters’ rhetorical flourishes against “the neoliberal experiment” notwithstanding, NZ First is not the unequivocally left-wing party that the Alliance was. Nor does Mr Peters have the luxury of looking at a National Party whose share of the Party Vote is less than Labour’s. In 1999, Jenny Shipley’s National Government attracted just 30.5 percent of the Party Vote. In marked contrast to Mr English’s position in 2017, there was simply no path to a parliamentary majority for Ms Shipley’s National Party.
What is it, then, that Mr Peters is confronting? First and foremost, he’s faced with a National Party undiminished in terms of popular support; controlling close to half the seats in the House of Representatives; and with the near unanimous endorsement of the most powerful institutions of New Zealand society. The people backing Bill English are the people who own things; the people who run things; the people accustomed to having the things they say becoming the things that people do – and pretty damn quickly. What on earth could Mr Peters possibly say to the 46 percent of New Zealanders who voted for the National Party that would in the slightest way reconcile them to being ignored?
He certainly cannot point to a record turnout of registered voters. That figure will be lucky to top 80 percent – a far cry from the 93.7 percent of electors who turned out to get rid of Rob Muldoon’s National Government in 1984. Nor can he point to a mass movement of the angry poor gathered behind a radical manifesto demanding fundamental changes to the way their country is run.
No, when Mr Peters turns to face the alternative to a National-NZ First coalition government, what does he see? A Labour Party which appears to believe that revolutions are delivered by working groups; and a Green Party which, having somehow survived the near write-off of its political vehicle, struggles to believe it’s still alive. Putting an end to “the neoliberal experiment” will, almost certainly, require a tougher team than this!
So, Mr Peters will play “the cards that count” with all the skill he indisputably possesses. And Mr English, if he is wise, will clasp his newfound ally by the hand and say: “Let’s do this!”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Monday, 25 September 2017.