24 October 2014

Does Labour have leadership?

The election of a new Labour Party leader will occupy the political news headlines between now and the announcement of a result on 18 November. But already the phrase ‘Labour leadership’ sounds like an oxymoron. For instance, the opening of the new parliament lacked a confirmed leader of the Opposition thanks to Labour's new leadership election process. But, assuming that Labour will eventually get its house in order and return to being a serious contender for government (as history suggests it will), what are the challenges facing the next leader?
After David Cunliffe won the leadership in September 2013, Labour’s opinion polling went from low- to mid-30s down to the mid-20s, ending in their public humiliation with 25.1% of party votes. Given that Cunliffe is an intelligent and articulate man who performed very well in pre-election debates with Prime Minister John Key, this poor performance may seem hard to explain. But Labour was up against a Prime Minister who continues to enjoy strong support. They also suffered from uncertainty among centrist voters about the potential influence of the Greens in a Labour–Green coalition. But then the whole prospect became even more distasteful to voters once it was apparent that NZ First could have wielded greater bargaining power with Labour than the Greens. From there, with a push from Kim Dotcom, it was all downhill.
Like beauty, good political leadership is in the eye of the beholder. And voting Kiwis just didn’t like what they beheld on the Labour side of the political spectrum. Somehow, Labour has to find its way out of the ideological and electoral corner into which it has now painted itself. It will be a long hard slog to regain credible results in the opinion polls, let alone form a future government.
So far, each of the four candidates has been evaluated in terms of their past experience and sectional affiliations. But the winner of this ‘primary’ election needs to rise above his or her existing affiliations and demonstrate a breadth of vision that encompasses (not necessarily resolves) the party’s internal differences. To succeed in the long term, he or she should be able to project a similar inclusiveness to the public at large, and so start looking like a future Prime Minister.
The danger for Labour is that no single candidate may emerge strongly ahead on the first preferences. If two or three are polling initially at around the same level, that would indicate an underlying division of opinion. It can be especially damaging for the future leader if it becomes clear to all that he/she is preferred by only a minority of caucus members. The lack of support in caucus for former leader David Cunliffe, made manifest by the leadership election results, gave John Key an open goal to score points, almost daily, against his opponent.
On the positive side, Labour Party members and affiliates can take heart from the fact that they have four very competent and experienced individuals to choose from. As they are in effect choosing the leader whom they hope will go on to be the next Prime Minister, they should ask themselves which one would be best to take on Mr Key and even surpass him in popularity. They need to ask which candidate will win back the middle-of-the-road voters who either decided to stay with or defect to National or NZ First in September’s general election.
If governing the nation again is Labour’s objective, then stale ideologies and internal loyalties are not the criteria on which to choose their next leader.

04 October 2014

The numbers do the talking

One of the big stories leading up to NZ's 20 September election was the effort to boost voter turnout. So, how well did that work? (I base my figures on percentage of the eligible population, and not percentage of those on the electoral rolls. The latter is more accurate, but not everyone enrols, so the former has greater validity.)
The 2011 turnout was 68.3%, and this time was 71.3%. Not a big increase, but at least it was not the decline that some had feared. Perhaps the weirdness of the campaign period (moments of truth, etc.) brought more out. The famous "missing million" of 2011 is now a "missing 975,000".
But the boost in numbers went largely to National. Conventional wisdom is that higher turnouts favour the left. But not this time.
Looking at raw numbers tells it all. The gains and losses in actual numbers of party votes between 2011 and 2014 goes like this:

National  +72865
Labour  –10403
Green  +9984

Thanks to the Greens, the Labour/Green combo declined by "only" 419 votes. This is a pathetic outcome for the left.
National has won over new voters (especially at the centre) even while in office. Labour has lost supporters in 3 elections in a row. This suggests that Labour needs to do much more than "stem the flow" in order to begin to challenge a National Party that is now looking for four terms in office.
Is any one of the contenders for the job of leader of the Labour Party up to the task?

It's a dull election after all

In spite of the bizarreness of the election campaign, the final count of results has produced an unexceptional, business-as-usual result.
The headlines following the count of special votes largely talk about National "losing" the single-party majority that it looked like they had on election night. They now have 60 seats out of 121, and so will need support from ACT and United Future – and likely the Maori Party too. So, incumbency reigns.
And National did not, after all, get the highest MMP party vote ever. In fact National's party vote has dropped slightly from 47.3% in 2011 to 47.04% this time.
It may be seem strange then that, despite a lower party vote, National now has one more seat than it did in the last parliament (up from 59 to 60). That can be explained by a larger percentage of 'wasted' votes this time, thanks to an increase in the Conservative party vote (from 2.65% in 2011 to 3.97% in 2014) and to the Internet/Mana loss. In sum, 6.24% of votes did not count this time, so that means that National's effective party vote was just over 50%.
Labour has ended up on 25.1% (compared with 27.5% in 2011), and the Greens on 10.7% (11.1% in 2011). The Greens are back at square one, with 14 seats, the same as in the last parliament. Labour has lost 2 seats. But Grant Robertson has to stop teasing David Cunliffe about getting "24%".
The big irony is the Internet/Mana result. In 2011, Mana on its own got 1.08% of the party vote, but Hone Harawira won Tai Tokerau, and so held the one seat. The alliance with the Internet Party led to 1.42%, a slightly better party vote, but Harawira narrowly lost his electorate seat to Kelvin Davis by 739 votes. Had Harawira won his electorate again, the Internet/Mana party would have 2 seats in parliament, just like the Maori party has. Indeed, Internet/Mana got a higher party vote than the Maori Party (on 1.32%).
United Future is a dog in the manger, though. While adding one seat to National's support base for a mere 0.22% of party votes sounds like good bang for the buck, UF has also caused the over-hang that makes 121 seats instead of 120, making it harder for National to form a majority. Would Key have been better off without Dunne?
In fact, would National have been better off by giving both UF and ACT the coup de grace? The answer is no: Between them, UF and ACT soaked up 0.91% of party votes. Once you have crossed the threshold to get seats, 0.9% only gets you one more list MP. Instead, National gets 2 house-pets to guarantee them confidence-and-supply support in government. Two for the price of one isn't bad, and there's no promise that those 0.9% of voters would all come National's way if UF and ACT did not exist.