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A closer look at Labour's shattering defeat - and the likely importance of Winston Peters
Nine thoughts on the morning after Election 2023
Good morning and welcome to the new New Zealand.
Chris Hipkins remains Prime Minister for now but his Government is now in full caretaker mode, ready to hand over the reins to a National-led Government of some form.
Here are nine things that stood out to me from last night.
Labour’s vote basically halved
On the preliminary results Labour has 26.85% of the party vote, a little more than half of its 2020 total of 50.01%. Here’s how that compares to some other losses under MMP, from worst to best:
2023 (preliminary): 26.85%
So at this point it is the second worst loss under MMP - just one election after its best.
National actually had a worse night than it seemed early on
National won the election and will be waking up energised right now. But the narrative that set it in early in the night - that National was comfortably in the low 40s and would be able to govern with just ACT - began to slip away as the on-the-day vote was counted, from a party vote high of around 42% to 38.99% where it sits now. Indeed just as Christopher Luxon started to speak the Electoral Commission went from projecting 62 seats for National and ACT to 61. It seems there was a small surge for the left in those later votes. It wasn’t enough to keep Labour in power - nowhere close - but when combined with the special vote it could easily be enough to force National and ACT into some sort of deal with Winston Peters.
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This is not to undermine the massive achievement National managed, taking a party from a maelstrom of chaos and defeat in 2020 back to easily the largest party in 2023.
But it is also a lower share of the party vote than Don Brash won in 2005. They are in Government but the other party on the right is far stronger than it has been every other time National have governed. This still isn’t the party of Key and English.
The special vote could easily force National into Winston Peters’ hands
National and ACT could govern alone with the results from the night. Their majority would be just one seat - 61 seats in a 121-seat Parliament - but enough. The boost from the Port Waikato by-election would be somewhat cancelled out thanks to the existing overhang from Te Paati Māori’s stellar performance, which has already added an extra seat to Parliament. Assuming National win that by-election National/ACT would have 62 seats in a 122-seat Parliament - so once again a one-seat majority.
But that’s a somewhat heroic assumption given there are still an estimated 567,000 special votes to be counted - about 20.2% of the total vote. For comparison the special vote was around 17% in 2020 and 2017, although it was a similar absolute size - turnout is down.
On a simple party vote level, National don’t have to lose much of that special vote to lose another MP. If just .99% of the vote - about 20,000 party votes - slipped back to the left on the specials National would lose a seat and with it the ability to govern with just ACT. And usually the right lose more than that on the specials - they lost 1.7% across National, ACT, and NZ First in 2020 (enough for two MPs), and 1.9% in 2017 (enough for two MPs again).
The reasons for this are actually fairly easy to divine if you understand the special vote. There’s a perception that the special votes are mostly from overseas. This is wrong - it was about 14% overseas vote this time and it was about 12.5% in 2020.
No, the special vote is largely two groups who swing a touch more left than the general population: People who are outside of their electorates for some reason, but not outside of the country - think students and young people in general who travel more, - and people who enrol on the day they turn up to vote. It’s not that the specials are 100% left or anything, it’s just that they typically lean quite a bit more left than the non-special vote.
Then there’s the overhang
Another route to Christopher Luxon having to pick up the phone to Winston Peters is a bigger overhang created by Te Paati Māori winning two more seats.
An overhang, if you’re not familiar, is what happens when a party wins more electorate seats than its party vote would allocate it if New Zealand’s electoral system was purely proportional. Since it is more of a hybrid, these MPs are allowed to sit, and there are no “levelling” seats for other parties created to maintain proportionality. This means Parliament gets bigger.
TPM already created a one-seat overhang by winning three seats on the night - more than its party vote share would entitle it to. It is also behind by just 487 votes in Te Tai Tokerau and 495 votes in Tāmaki Makaurau. If it won either of those seats it would make Parliament even bigger - 122 seats without the Port Waikato by-election, or 123 with it. That makes that National/ACT majority that little bit harder to reach.
But this is not quite certain. Maybe the special votes don’t go as left as they usually do. It’s certainly possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it. More likely we own’t know the full picture of this Government until after November 3 when the full results including the specials are announced.
Labour lost across its heartland
Labour won a flush of seats in 2020 that it could never expect to win in a normal election. MPs in places like Whangarei and Whanganui and Rangitata and Ilam had a pretty good idea their days were numbered. So it’s no real surprise they lost there as the red tide went out.
But Labour also lost in the seats it would usually never worry about. Helen White has a razor-thin majority of 106 in Mt Albert - Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark’s old seat, a seat that stuck with Labour through the dark election defeats of 1990 and 2014. Deborah Russell is behind by 106 in New Lynn. These seats could flip or get safer when the special vote comes in, but Labour’s loss in Mt Roskill, where Michael Wood probably assumed he had a seat for life, looks certain - National is ahead by 1429.
Obviously the Green Party electorate vote had a part to play in this: The Greens ran a two-tick campaign for Ricardo Menéndez March in Mt Albert. More strikingly the party swept the capital’s inner-city seats - more on that in a minute.
Labour’s turnout was dismal
These electorate results themselves are more symptoms of Labour’s loss than cause. The cause is the collapse in the party vote, which we discussed further up. Part of this will be switchers, but a sizeable chunk looks to be people staying home.
Overall turnout looks to have dropped from 82.2% in 2020 to 78.4% in 2023. It seems to have hit the left particularly bad, as drops in turnout typically do.
In Labour’s traditional South Auckland stronghold of Mangere, for example, there were 32,000 valid votes in the last election, and 19,000 votes as of last night. That means that even though Labour won the seat by a massive party vote margin, it contributed far less to the overall party vote across the country, which is what really matters. In nearby Manurewa, another Labour stronghold, the turnout dropped from 31,000 to 20,000.
Meanwhile National’s strongholds did not see a big a turnout drop. 42,000 people turned out to vote in the true blue Christchurch seat of Selwyn in 2020, and 40,000 turned up this time - a drop of just 2000. 46,000 people turned out to vote in the north Auckland seat of Whangaparāoa in 2020, and 38,000 people turned up as of yesterday. As you can see, people already vote in higher rates in blue seats than red ones - but it seems this difference was far more stark this time around.
You can also see this in the margins by which National hold their safest seats.
The largest Labour majority is 8385 in Mangere. The largest National majority is more than twice as large - 19,330 in Whangaparāoa.
The special votes will change this - but not by that much.
The Greens now control Wellington
The Green Party seemed to like the taste of winning electorates. Tamatha Paul has convincingly won Wellington Central. Julie Anne Genter is ahead in Rongotai by a likely insurmountable 792 votes, and I heard some talk last night of Labour candidate Fleur Fitzsimons conceding, although this is not confirmed. And in Auckland Central Chlöe Swarbrick cemented her shock win from 2020.
Basically, the Green Party successfully squeezed Labour out from the left. The young and educated voters in these electorates decided they would happily go two ticks Green and stick it to a party that wouldn’t even discuss a wealth tax or any other real leftist policy.
The party will be celebrating these wins and their increase in the party vote. But with Labour this weak a reasonably strong Greens is a given - 10.78% is solid and will increase after the specials, but is quite a lot lower than what they were polling.
What will the electorates mean? Well the Greens will now have some more Parliamentary funding, and a stronger foothold in these communities. But they will also have all the duties and responsibilities that come with holding a local seat - which sometimes involves advocating for your constituents even when you disagree with them, or just spending hours and hours of your life at school prizegivings. It will be interesting to see whether they can hold onto the seats when Labour get some strength back.
Te Paati Māori dominated
Labour won every Māori electorate in 2017. In 2020 TPM managed to wrestle one back, and with that foothold it is now a threat to Labour in all of them.
It’s hard to overstate quite how seismic the shift against Labour in these seats was. Nanaia Mahuta has been the MP for her seat under its various names since 1999 - years before the woman who banished her from it last night was even born. She won Hauraki-Waikato by almost 10,000 votes in 2020, and is set to lose it by 1,366 votes.
Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer was a more predictable win in Te Tai Hauāuru, but her 6,347 is very impressive.
Labour have clawed back ahead in Te Tai Tokerau and Tāmaki Makaurau but by less than 500 votes - those could flip on the specials as discussed earlier.
Ironically, the only Māori seat Labour are safe in is the one where the sitting Labour MP defected. Cushla Tangaere-Manuel looks set to easily send off Meka Whaitiri, who defected to TPM earlier this year from Labour but never really explained why.
Hipkins’ future is wholly unclear
The normal thing to do after leading your party to a defeat in the 20s is to resign. Hipkins was fairly clear that option was on the table last night. But unlike Helen Clark in 2008 he did not resign right away. What remains to be seen is whether anyone wants the job other than him. Taking over as opposition leader after a bad loss is no easy feat. It’s a hospital pass, it’s the worst job in politics, it’s all those things - but it’s also the only real route to Prime Minister. Just ask Christopher Luxon.