Attempts to read across from the politics of our Anglosphere cousins to our own always court the risk of seeing only whatever the author’s particular prejudices want them to see.
Those centre-right commentators currently holding up Pierre Poilievre’s campaign against NIMBYism in Canada as a model for electoral success would be unlikely to be as enthusiastic about imitating Donald Trump in demanding immigration curbs and reduced aid to Ukraine if such a strategy gets him back into the White House. The Anna Karenina lesson holds: each country’s conservatives are conservative in their own way.
Nonetheless, some general points can usually be made. If Australia’s rejection of ‘The Voice’ this weekend was a sign that Antipodean voters mirror their British forebears in disliking being told what to vote for by sanctimonious elites, then the success of Christopher Luxon and the Nationals in New Zealand tells us of the importance of message discipline – and how difficult re-election currently is for incumbents.
Three years ago, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour won 65 seats and almost 50 per cent of the vote in an unprecedented result under Wellington’s mixed-member system. That election came at the peak of the progressive poster girl’s popularity based on her response to the pandemic: a zero Covid strategy based on aggressive lockdowns and closed borders to the rest of the world. Smiling Kiwis frolicked on beaches as British voters huddled at home.
Yet it soon became clear after Ardern’s re-election that a strategy of hiding under the bed until Covid went away was not a viable long-term strategy. Cycles of lockdowns and a battle between Wellington and protestors over vaccine mandates poisoned the national mood. Ardern’s popularity rapidly withered. When she resigned to spend more time being feted abroad earlier this year, Labour was far adrift in the polls.
Chris Hipkins may have been a refreshingly dull replacement for his sainted predecessor, but had little hope of improving his party’s position. A series of ministerial scandals combined with a sluggish economy (New Zealand’s growth has slowed to 1.1 per cent) and a housing unaffordability crisis meant Labour’s vote halved. This is the worst government defeat since New Zealand adopted MMP.
Labour had done little to match its promises. A pledge to build 100,000 new affordable homes saw only 1,300 built in five years. Inflation, anemic growth, and growing budget deficits were all inevitable consequences of Ardern’s attempt to build a friendlier North Korea with a half-decent cricket team. Proposals to tax the methane farted by livestock were also unpopular in a food-producing powerhouse.
But they are hardly the only incumbent party to be currently struggling. Scott Morrison’s Liberal/National coalition was given the boot by voters in Australia last year. Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau’s respective holds on power look increasingly shaky. We are all familiar with what the polls currently portend for Rishi Sunak. That the situation has changed so rapidly for Labour signals the scale of Kiwi disillusionment.
Nonetheless, one shouldn’t seek to distract too much from the personal achievement of Luxon. In only three years he has taken the Nationals from their second-worst ever performance to more than 40 per cent of the vote. The former Air New Zealand chief executive did this while sticking to a classic conservative formula of pledging tax cuts, curbs on surging crime, and investment in infrastructure.
Luxon’s strategy was one familiar to any student of those Antipodean electoral whizzes Lynton Crosby and Isaac Levido. Simple messages and media discipline combined with an impressive and localized ground campaign to give the party’s offering coherence and weight. Sunak take note: dabbling with HS2 and A-Levels might be personally engaging, but core priorities matter most to voters.
Although it is clear Luxon will be Wellington’s next Prime Minister, the exact composition of his government remains unclear. National and ACT – their refreshingly libertarian allies – are projected to have 61 seats: enough for a majority of two. But 570,000 “special voters” from overseas or outside electorates are still being counted. More seats may also be allocated to the leading Maori party.
In the event the two parties cannot get across the line, Luxon is likely to turn to Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party. Peters is like a Kiwi Nigel Farage, but much more successful. Peters quit National and set up his own populist party in 1993. He has served on two occasions as Deputy Prime Minister, having propped up both National and Labour governments.
Luxon has suggested he is open to talking with Peters before every vote has been counted. The latter has been critical of National and ACT’s pledges to cut taxes, reduce funding for public services, and let foreign buyers into the housing market. Partnering with Peters will likely mean significant changes to the centre-right agenda on which Luxon has been elected.
A final lesson, then, for Conservatives in this hemisphere. It might be a laugh grabbing a selfie with Farage in the bar of the Midland Hotel. But God bless First-Past-The-Post for ensuring forming a stable right-wing government in this country isn’t more difficult than it already is. As Germany struggles to contain the AfD, our two-and-a-half-party system can still be classed as a model of stability.
Keir Starmer’s increasing aversion to any form of constitutional tinkering should hopefully mean proportional representation is once again off the table for the foreseeable future. But a year is a long time in politics. Some form of PR – or another referendum on it – would be an inevitable price for Liberal Democrat support for Labour if Starmer somehow conspires to chuck away his significant poll lead.
In which case, familiarizing ourselves with the Kiwi situation will become even more of a necessity, if only to get a few pointers for what our own future might hold. At least it worked for Ben Stokes.