Split Decision: Labour’s woeful 2014 Party Vote, at just 25 percent, was the party's worst electoral performance since 1922. Not so well known, however, is the number of votes cast for Labour Party candidates across the country’s 71 electorates. That total, at 801,287 (34 percent!) is 196,752 larger than the 604,535 Party Votes Labour received. If every Electorate Vote for Labour had been matched by a Party Vote, the National Government would, almost certainly, have fallen.
IF EVERYONE who voted for their Labour candidate in last year’s election had also given Labour their Party Vote, National would have lost. The discrepancy between the two vote tallies is startling. Everybody’s heard about Labour’s woeful 2014 Party Vote. At just 25 percent, it was Labour’s worst electoral performance since 1922. Nowhere near as well known, however, is the number of votes cast for Labour Party candidates across the country’s 71 electorates. That number, at 801,287, is 196,752 larger than the 604,535 Party Votes Labour received. If every Electorate Vote for Labour had been matched by a Party Vote, the percentage figure alongside Labour’s name on election night would not have been a derisory 25, but a much more respectable 34 – almost certainly enough to have changed the government.
Such a huge discrepancy between the Party and Electorate Votes indicates a political party in serious trouble. What it reveals is that where voters are either well acquainted with, or have been introduced effectively to their Labour Party candidate, they are much more likely to place a tick beside his or her name. When it comes to Labour as an entity in its own right, however, the inclination to give the party a tick is nowhere near as strong. In the Christchurch electorate of Port Hills, for example, the long-serving Labour candidate, Ruth Dyson, received 18,161 electorate votes. The Labour Party on its own, however, mustered just 9,514 Party Votes – a whopping 9,205 less than National’s 18,719 Party Votes. Small wonder, then, that 27 of the 32 MPs in Labour’s caucus are electorate MPs, with only 5 coming in off the Party List.
Ruth Dyson, Labour MP for Port Hills: 2014 Electorate Vote : 18,161; 2014 Party Vote: 9,514.
Unless this situation is turned around – and quickly – Labour’s electoral performance can only deteriorate. As the party’s well-known and affectionately regarded electorate MPs retire, the assumption that Labour people will replace Labour people is being called into question. Once again, Christchurch supplies the example. The parliamentary seat of Christchurch Central was for decades regarded as one of the safest of Labour’s “safe” seats. True to form, in the 2005 General Election Labour’s majority was 7,836. In 2008, however, with a new candidate, it’s majority shrank to just 935. Three years later, National’s Nicky Wagner took the seat with a majority of 47 votes. In last year’s election National increased its majority to 2,420. Significantly, National’s share of the Party Vote over those four general elections rose from 30.5 to 44.6 percent. Labour will have to work very hard to recover Christchurch Central in 2017.
Nicky Wagner, National MP for Christchurch Central: Increased her majority from 47 in 2011 to 2,420 in 2014.
What is to be done? Clearly, the most important issue that Labour must address is the current, very different, perceptions Labour voters have of familiar political faces – like Ruth Dyson’s – and the political face of the Labour Party itself. Inevitably, the face of the Party, per se, and that of the Party Leader become blurred in the minds of the voters. It is, therefore, essential that whoever is Labour’s Leader takes great care of the party’s “brand”. David Cunliffe’s “I’m sorry I’m a man” comment, though well meant, nevertheless inflicted enormous damage on Labour’s image – especially (and obviously) among its male supporters.
But if protecting and projecting the party’s brand is an important part of any Labour Leader’s job, having a clear idea of what the brand stands for is, surely, just as important? At the electorate level (and Labour’s electorates are mostly poor, brown and working-class) the local MP is generally perceived as being on “our side” – someone they can turn to for help in times of trouble. That perception of being on the side of the poor, the brown and the working-class once constituted the core of Labour’s brand.
That up to twice the number of poor, brown and working-class voters now vote for Labour candidates, rather than the party itself, suggests that their perception of what Labour stands for is very different from what they perceive their local MP to stand for.
The needs and problems of elderly folk soak up an enormous amount of Labour MPs’ time and energy – and that’s greatly appreciated. Not so appreciated, however, was Labour’s election promise to raise the age of eligibility for NZ Superannuation from 65 to 67. In the eyes of poor, brown and working-class people, that didn’t come across as a very Labour-like thing to do.
Labour’s challenge is to persuade its voters to give it two ticks. But that won’t happen until poor, brown and working-class people can be persuaded that Labour and its local candidates stand for the same things. Offering Labour’s traditional supporters economic policies that look and sound like those of the National Party will not rebuild Labour’s Party Vote.
The now demolished Christchurch Trades Hall once bore the graffiti: “You were supposed to help.” If Labour’s not very careful, those words may also become its epitaph.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 July 2015.