22 Oct 2020

Explaining The Red Tide: Kiwis hug Jacinda back as Labour breaks records

From Caucus, 2:00 pm on 22 October 2020

Through the past three years, as grief and crises have hit New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has reached out and hugged those who were struggling. In Election 2020, New Zealand hugged her right back, delivering a victory on such a scale it puts her in the box seat for the 2023 election before all the 2020 special votes have even been counted.

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In this week's final Caucus podcast, the team agrees the red tide has flowed, in large part as a nationwide thank you to Ardern and the Labour-led government's handling of Covid-19. Labour and the Greens won 57 percent of the vote, the biggest vote for the Left in New Zealand since Norman Kirk's 1972 Labour win, and arguably the highest ever, trumping the first Labour government's 55.8 percent support in 1938.

It's the first time a government gets to govern alone under MMP and gives Labour its most new MPs since 1935. National won the party vote in only four out 64 seats.

Yet tides that flow can also ebb, and Lisa Owen and Scott Campbell warned of the potential for hard choices ahead trying to balance the beliefs of Labour voters, old and new.

On election night Ardern spoke to the cheering party faithful, but directed her comments at swing voters who had switched over to Labour, telling them she would not take their support for granted and her second term administration would govern for all New Zealanders. 

"Why were they cheering for that," asks Espiner. While it's a great Obama-esque line, there's "something darker" in that for party stalwarts. 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Labour Election Day party after the Labour Party won New Zealand's general election in Auckland on October 16, 2020.

Photo: AFP

As Owen says, "Hang on a minute, don't you realise what this means for you? This means she's going to be hugging the centre line arguably. She's not going to want to annoy those people she says she's bringing into the nest. What does this mean for the policies that are dear to the heart of the Labour movement and some of those policies that are going to send shivers down the spine of some of those people who voted for them?"

The reason I said at the top that the vote for the Left was only "arguably" the highest ever is because it depends on your definition of Left. Is Ardern's Labour government really very left-wing, or is it mostly a continuation of the centrist governments run by John Key and Helen Clark.

Earlier this week, I argued that some of the swing to Labour was likely from traditional National voters nervous of the Greens holding the balance of power, but quite comfortable that an Ardern-led Labour Party will act as its own handbrake. And I got several emails as a result from rural New Zealanders saying many were on the phones in that final week, convincing each other to vote Labour to keep the Greens away from power.

As Campbell says, they didn't see anything scary there, a view that's underlined by the confidence he's hearing in business circles this week. 

He adds that National tried to fight what was always going to be a presidential-style election with policy and voters weren't buying. They weren't focused on an infrastructure bank or even taxes, they just wanted someone to deal with the pandemic.

Tim Watkin, Lisa Owen, Scott Campbell and Guyon Espiner discuss the 2020 election result, Auckland, October 2020.

Tim Watkin, Lisa Owen, Scott Campbell and Guyon Espiner discuss the 2020 election result, Auckland, October 2020. Photo: RNZ

Owen isn't so sure. The 'scared of the Greens' lines feels like a convenient excuse for National, like a runner claiming to have had cramp at the 18-mile mark.

National has a serious rebuild on its hand and a need to figure out how it can look and sound more like modern New Zealand. But if its MPs need inspiration on just how quickly tides can go back out, they only have to look back to 2014, when David Cunliffe led Labour to defeat on 25.1 percent. Ardern won just three years later. The glow can fade and the pendulum can swing very quickly.

As for the Greens, the Caucus crew were all curious as to why they were so "stoked" on election night. Sure, they got extra MPs and Chlöe Swarbrick impressively won a seat on which they can build a stronger, bigger party. But they are left powerless.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 17: Green Party Candidate for Auckland Chloe Swarbrick speaks during the Greens Party Election Function at Grid X on October 17, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand.

Photo: 2020 Getty Images

"Why are you ecstatic? Labour has it all over you," says Owen.

"They just get crumbs from the gluten-free bread," as Espiner put it. 

No-one on Caucus would rule out Winston Peters trying to make another comeback, yet it was notable that ACT's David Seymour this week said "my goal is to be Winston, just not a dickhead".

As for the deputy prime minister role, the advice from the podcast is for Kelvin Davis to let Grant Robertson take the role, but only in exchange for the job he really wants and prominent roles for the rest of the Māori caucus. It's his chance to make a real difference, by sacrificing his own ambition. 

It'll be next week before we see the shape of the new government and potentially the week after before the jobs are all allocated, but that's the easy stuff. The hard choices for Ardern and Labour will come over the next three years as she looks to carry the weight of governing alone amidst competing expectations.

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