What did it mean? The 2017 general election in retrospect

In my final post before the election I boldly predicted a fourth term for National. This was based on the belief that National would hold the most seats and govern with ACT and the Maori Party or secure the support of New Zealand First. I was right about the first part and wrong about everything else.

National remained the largest party by a wide margin but it was unable to form a government. This makes 2017 most unusual. The closest historical analogy would have to be the 1928 general election when United formed a minority government with confidence and supply from Labour.

Now the excitement is over, it’s time for some sober analysis. I claimed at the outset of this blog that the only realistic outcome was one in which National would remain the single largest party by a wide margin and that this would represent an epochal moment in our politics. I argued that the election would result in a major change to the party system.

I maintain that 2017 is a turning point in New Zealand politics. The resurgence of Labour notwithstanding, this election has confirmed the significance of minor parties. Despite its hold on government, Labour is in a weak electoral position. It did not win the election. It did not come close to winning.

The historic swing to Labour belies a very low base. With 37% of the vote and 46 MPs, Labour is only three seats better off than it was in 2008. Indeed, the Labour-NZ First Coalition lacks a majority and must rely on the Greens to govern. Such an arrangement gives disproportionate power to the smaller parties.

The early indications are that this government will go the distance. But it will not necessarily be to the long-term advantage of Labour. Historically, minor parties have been tainted by government, the burdens of office proving too great for them. Yet this time could be different.

NZ First and the Greens have a wealth of political experience behind them. These are parties that pre-date MMP. Each has solidified a loyal core of supporters who provide an electoral bedrock. To write either off in 2020 would be naïve, given the enduring strength of their appeal.

It is possible that the Greens will experience a resurgence under its new co-leadership, and it is equally plausible that Winston Peters or a successor can return NZ First to Parliament in 2020. Should either happen this would most likely come at the expense of Labour’s aspirations to be the largest party once more.

If Labour fails to beat National in the party vote for a fifth time, it could give way to further growth in support for alternative parties, and perhaps lead to a permanent realignment of the party system. That Labour should remain the dominant party of the centre-left is no more guaranteed than the largest party’s claim to government.

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