The result of New Zealand’s general election was the re-election of Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Labour will not just retain power but have an overall majority in the House of Representatives. Before this, Labour had been in government in coalition with the New Zealand First Party and with further confidence and supply agreement with the Greens.
Labour polled 49% of the party-list vote, an increase of 12 points from 2017 and its highest vote share since 1987. The National Party, in contrast, dropped 17 points from 44% in 2017, to just 27%, their worst result since 2002. New Zealand First, who were in coalition with Labour, lost all their seats, polling just 2.7% of the vote, failing to meet the 5% threshold to win seats. The ACT Party surged from just 0.5% three years ago to 8% of the vote, putting them ahead of the Greens who also increased their vote share to 7.6%.
Since 1996, New Zealand has used the “Mixed Member Proportional” (MMP) voting system. Voters have two votes, one for a local constituency MP using the first past the post system (i.e. the candidate with the most votes wins) and one for a party list.
Parties need to either poll at least 5% of the party-list vote or win at least 1 constituency seat to win party-list seats. The system is designed to ensure a proportional outcome. 120 seats were elected, 72 were constituency seats, 48 were list seats. This has meant since 1996; no party has ever managed to win an absolute majority of seats. Not, that is, until Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party did last week – it set an unusual result by managing to win a majority under a system specifically designed to avoid such outcomes.
It is also remarkable in a broader sense. In this current era, parties on the left, and especially the centre-left, have struggled to either win, let alone maintain power. Yet, in New Zealand, there is an election where a centre-left party that has governed for a full term has been re-elected and expanded and broadened its appeal.
Take the result in the constituency of Ilam. Ilam has been held by the Nationals ever since its creation in 1996. Three years ago, Labour did not even come 2nd, they came third with only 21.5% of the vote, to the Nationals 47%. But Labour in 2020 gained this seat with 47.4% to 40.9%, a definite turnaround. This was far from an isolated incident.
The coronavirus pandemic played a key role in Ardern’s re-election. Before the pandemic, a January poll by Roy Morgan Research suggested a tight election with Labour and the Nationals tied on 40% each. The Roy Morgan Research April poll, however, after the pandemic hit, had Labour on 55%, the Nationals 30.5%, almost a 24 point lead. This surge in support for Labour coincided with polling in April that showed up to 88% of New Zealanders trusted the Ardern government’s coronavirus response.
Although Labour’s lead did drop as the year progressed, it was maintained and carried through to their 12% lead on election night. Therefore the polling evidence suggests that governments who voters trust in a crisis can be rewarded at elections.
Yet, perhaps some lessons go beyond the immediate crisis. For parties on the centre-left that have struggled in recent years, especially for example the UK Labour Party, it shows a centre-left party can be trusted to lead and govern and build a broad coalition of voters. Jacinda Ardern’s re-election was exceptional at this moment. Still, it is also a moment that many parties that aspire to gain and retain power may do well to revisit as their own elections approach.