Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern claims victory on election night, November 6, 2020

A study of the 2020 election has found that though the swing to Labour was the biggest vote shift in New Zealand for more than a century, it was not structural.

Indeed, the fundamental electoral forces that drove the result were not dissimilar to those that had emerged in the 2017 election.

What made 2020 different was a much higher turnout, particularly among younger voters, and the widespread support and trust of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

But the voters who came to Labour were centrists; they were not there for Labour’s ideology, and once the need to contain COVID declined and inflation began to bite in the economy, they abandoned Labour.

Most then went to ACT or National.

 The study is based on the New Zealand Election Survey and is published as “A Team of Five Million? The 2020 ‘Covid-19’ New Zealand General Election” and is the latest in a long series of New Zealand election surveys which Professor Jack Vowles Vowles from Victoria University has headed.

He has been joined by Associate Professor Lara Greaves, also from Victoria and Professor Jennifer Curtin from the University of Auckland.

Vowles concluded that there was no evidence of an ideological shift that would provide the foundations for significant changes in public policy settings on social and economic issues.

The authors don’t say so, but the obvious conclusion, therefore, is that the 2020 – 2023 Labour Government hadn’t won a new mandate for anything other than its management of Covid.

As it so often seemed, it was really the Ardern Government rather than a Labour Government.

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What we have seen since the equally big swing away from Labour to ACT and National is part of a worldwide trend, Vowles told POLITIK yesterday.

“I think we’re going through much the same thing that other countries around the world of our kind are going through, only not quite so seriously,” he said.

“If you look at Germany, if you look at the UK, if you look at France, it’s increased volatility.

“Traditional party loyalties are breaking down, and voting behaviour is much more fluid.”

“Essentially, it was a competency signal,” he said.

“The government proved itself extremely competent at managing the pandemic, and it was also helped by the fact that Jacinda Ardern was such an effective communicator.

“Compared to the chaos of the National Party opposition, it really came down to that support for the Covid response, which at that time was still very strong, probably as strong as it ever was.

“It had nothing to do with ideology.

“It was all about what we call valency, just competence and the ability to govern.”

With the attention on how a party governs is also coming a breakdown in the old class-based underpinning of the two main political parties.

Vowles said the class impact on voting was almost zero.

“It has been that way really for the last couple of elections,” he said.

But there were some clear characteristics of voters.

For example, people who possessed control within a workplace (rather than simply status) tended to vote National.

“If you’re an employer or if you’re self-employed or if you’re a supervisor or if you’re simply an employee, there’s quite an interesting little gradient there.

“So there’s an argument to say that workplace authority matters.”

In fact, the study found that occupational status had no effect on vote choice for manual and non-manual workers, with the exception of farmers.

The study found that non-supervisory workers were less likely to vote.

“Not voting is more likely among men, the young, non-union members, and employees who have no supervisory responsibilities,” the study said.

“National and ACT voters are found less in urban than in rural areas.

“Higher incomes and wider ownership of assets are associated with National, as is non-membership of a trade union.

“The Green Party has a higher concentration of young voters than the other parties and appeals most in large cities.

“ACT does not appeal so much to women voters.

“Green voters are less likely to be church attendees and are much more likely to have a university degree than those voting for other parties.

“Māori were less likely than non-Māori to vote for Nation.”

However, the study finds (unsurprisingly) that ultimately, it was Ardern herself who won the 2020 election.

Her victory was all the more remarkable given that she had agreed to New Zealand following a rigorous “elimination” strategy to deal with Covid.

“Ardern’s description of New Zealand as a Team of Five Million—the entire population—encouraged a sense of collective purpose and identity,” the study said.

“As a phrase, it soon became the go-to metaphor for news outlets around the world seeking to understand how Ardern had swayed a democratic nation to accept an elimination approach.”

She had won the electorate’s trust.

“Effective leadership and clear communication enhanced the soaring popularity of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern,” the study said.

“Her most significant achievement was to be perceived as trustworthy.

“A strong stimulus attenuated the economic effects.

“There was no ideological shift to the left. Most of those who moved to Labour were centrists—those voters closest to the median left-right position—and it was the approval of the Covid-19 response that pulled them to Labour in their voting choices. Still, that approval did not appear to shift their ideological or policy preferences across other dimensions.”

That meant that once the COVID emergency began to ease, Labour would be vulnerable.

However, after 2020, as Covid declined, inflation began to take over as a major concern among voters.

“By the end of 2022, the National Party was regularly polling ahead of Labour, often by significant margins,” the study said.

“The role played by Jacinda Ardern in evoking the Team of Five Million to combat COVID-19 had lost its shine.

“While gained through competent and caring pandemic management, her government’s popularity had waned along with the threat of Covid-19.”

As her popularity shrunk, so did her ability to achieve the goals she had set for her prime ministership.

“On assuming the Labour Party leadership and the job of Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins initiated a ‘bonfire’ of policies,” the study said.

“The time for Ardern’s inspirational leadership style had passed.

“While the pandemic could take much of the blame, most of Ardern’s lofty goals for ‘transformation’ had been at best marginally achieved.

“Labour had taken advantage of its single-party majority, moving ahead with ambitious policy changes, the number and scope of which challenged the capacity of its Cabinet and the public service.

“Many of these policies encountered strong opposition from the public or lobbyists representing entrenched interests, including on issues related to water reform, climate change mitigation, and Māori co-governance.”

The study quoted Ipsos data collected throughout 2022 and into 2023, confirming rising inflation’s effects on public perceptions.

 In February 2023, 65 per cent of those surveyed named inflation/the cost of living as one of the top three issues facing New Zealand.

The economy, in general, was mentioned by 22 per cent.

“The Ipsos government approval rating on a zero–ten scale remained at an average of 5.4, just within positive territory, compared with 7.3 at the time of the 2020 election,” the study said.

The study authors said a focus on economic issues tended to shift the discursive advantage to centre-right parties.

“There is a form of popular wisdom that believes that because the National Party draws its ideas and support from business, its leaders must be more competent at managing the national economy.

“While running a business is not the same as running an entire economy, most people do not appreciate the differences.”

The “Team of Five Million” seemed a distant memory by election day 2023.

“By the middle of 2022, the sense of unity represented by the idea of the Team of Five Million had not entirely disappeared, but the numbers opposed to it had grown,” the study said.

The ‘team’ metaphor no longer resonated in the public discourse.

And so the 2020 bubble burst on election day 2023. But given the volatility of politics around the world, the violent swings that have happened in New Zealand over the past seven years could easily continue.

(A Team of Five Million? The 2020 ‘Covid-19’ New Zealand General Election is published by ANU Press. It can be downloaded free at A Team of Five Million? (anu.edu.au). Hard copies cost A$70.)