Prime Minister Winston Peters and the Last Labour Government?

The mainstream media has the 2017 election worked out: Winston Peters is kingmaker already. The only question is, “will he go with National or Labour?”

For not the first time, this narrative has been challenged by NBR political columnist Matthew Hooton. In his most recent column, Hooton proposes an alternative scenario that would see Peters become the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Hooton argues that a resurgent NZ First could undermine Labour’s status as a major party. In the Hooton-NBR scenario, NZ First gains support at the expense of Labour. The two parties come within a few percentage points of each other.

With less than a quarter of the vote, Labour is deprived of its leader who is a list-only candidate. According to Hooton, these conditions are “readymade” for Winston Peters to lead a government with Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw.

The scenario outlined above may seem fanciful. Almost everyone assumes that, sooner or later, the electorate will tire of National and elect a Labour government. That is the pattern our politics have followed for nearly 70 years. MMP didn’t change it.

The trajectory of Labour over the past decade should lead one to question this assumption, however. In 2011, Phil Goff led Labour to what was then its worst defeat since 1928. Its vote collapsed from 34% to 27.5%. The Greens and NZ First surged. Then in 2014, the Labour vote declined even further.

The country’s oldest political party now goes into the 2017 election with a base of just 25%. On recent polling, Labour only expects to get around 30% in September. As I wrote last week, any centre-left government would necessitate a three-way power sharing agreement, for which there is no real precedent in New Zealand political history.

Of course, the mainstream media assumes Labour will get 30%. This is where I think Hooton is on to something far more substantial than Winston Peters’ ambitions for high office. Hooton is suggesting the electoral decline of Labour will continue.

That would confirm a long-term trend. And it could lead to a permanent realignment in our party system.The last time we had such a realignment was in 1935, when the First Labour Government was elected. It forced the parties of the centre-right, Reform and United, to merge into the modern National Party.

How poetic would it be for a former National Party cabinet minister to lead the last Labour government?

The swing of the pendulum

The most recent Curia Public Poll Average has Labour on 29.5% and the Greens on 13%. This would put a Labour/Greens coalition neck and neck with National. If these numbers are representative of how the electorate votes in September, then a centre-left government is plausible. And yet, National would remain the single largest party by a wide margin. Nevermind policy. That is the reason why red/green is a radical proposition.

Since World War II, power has alternated between Labour and National at regular intervals. Some have compared this pattern to the swing of a pendulum. When the Clark Government was defeated in 2008, a lot of people assumed that the pendulum would swing back to Labour after two or three terms. There is no evidence that has happened. The Labour vote declined in 2011 and 2014. The party now struggles to poll 30%, and if historical trends are anything to go by then we can expect its support to decline further as the campaign gets underway.

Yet the possibility of a centre-left minority government cannot be dismissed. Such an outcome would, most likely, depend on the support of Winston Peters and NZ First. In the past, NZ First has given preference to the party with the most seats. Will 2017 be an exception? If so, then the electoral pendulum would have swung, not to Labour, but to Labour/Greens/NZ First. It would be our first, true multiparty government.

Key’s resignation is no game changer

“A political reset button has been hit,” declared Patrick Gower. John Key’s resignation has “upturned the electoral landscape,” wrote Tracey Watkins. I think 2017 will prove them wrong. There are two reasons for this. First, the media narrative around ‘Brand Key’ is flawed. Second, the idea that Key’s departure will breathe new life into Labour is fanciful.

In all the excitement, commentators have missed a number of recent polls that suggest National has outgrown Key. In April, a One News-Colmar Brunton poll had Key on 39% and National on 47%. The following month a Newshub-Reid Research poll found Key’s support had plummeted to 36.5%, while National remained steady on 47%. The trend has continued. In its most recent poll, Colmar Brunton found Key (36%) lagging 14 points behind National (50%).

Then there is the claim that Key’s resignation somehow leaves the election wide open. As if all of the problems that have beset Labour for the last 8 years are going to miraculously disappear. Why? The government hasn’t imploded. We’re not in the depths of economic crisis. So long as Key’s successor can maintain the pretense of competent economic management, hold the National caucus together, and avoid major scandal, then the electoral landscape won’t be ‘upended’.

It really doesn’t matter if Bill English is ‘boring’. The average voter cares about their livelihood more than they care about the idiosyncrasies of some politician. And for a large number of voters, life has been good under this government. Labour needs to do a lot more than wait for National to self-destruct.

This post was originally written in December 2016. 


The objective of this blog is to critique popular media narratives about NZ politics, and to place the 2017 election in a broader historical context. It will provide analysis and commentary from a more academic perspective. Over the next few months I’ll share some thoughts about why this election is different and what might happen next. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy.