Labour leader Chris Hipkins used the word “lost” 19 times in his media conference yesterday.
In his read of the election, National ACT and NZ First did not win; Labour lost.
It is rare to hear an admission that blunt from a party leader in the wake of an election defeat and he was ready to be surprisingly frank with detail about where Labour lost.
That included a heavy hint that at least two of his own ministers were partly to blame.
But he started by going back to Covid when Jacinda Ardern was Prime Minister.
“There’s no doubt that we had a significant drop in support from the end of 2021, and we weren’t able to recover that, and that was particularly the case in Auckland,” he said.
That was a reference to the August – December Auckland lockdown.
Hipkins must have had access to polling showing the party had taken a hit over the lockdown when he appeared on TVNZ’s “Q+A” in June last year because he started expressing regrets about it.
He said that if the Government could have redone the COVID-19 response, he would have scaled back the Auckland Delta lockdowns more quickly in the last three months of 2021.
“There were probably some areas we could have moved more quickly to step down some restrictions,” he said.
“That lockdown in Auckland at the end of 2021, I think nerves were pretty frayed by the end of that.
“And we should acknowledge that. Aucklanders paid a big price for our ongoing suppression of Delta while we got our vaccination rates up and so on.”.
But as it was to turn out, not only Aucklanders paid a big price; so did Labour.
The swing against Labour across Auckland was just over 20 per cent compared with that in the provincial and rural seats, which was nearer 17 per cent.
Even so, at the beginning of this year, the Taxpayers Unions Curia poll, which eventually produced results closest to the election result, in February this year had Labour and National tied on 34.4 per cent.
But by July, Hipkins had lost two Ministers, Stuart Nash and Michael Wood.
“The issues that I had to grapple with as Prime Minister this year around ministerial conduct certainly didn’t help and prevented us getting the kind of clear air for the ideas that we wanted to talk about,” he said.
But POLITIK understands from Labour Party sources that the party’s own polling and focus groups showed that the Wood affair in June was the most damaging and had a devastating effect on support.
It immediately opened up a gap between the two main parties and put National three per cent ahead. That grew to eight per cent by the end of August.
There is also a feeling among some in the party that the Budget didn’t help; that when the cost of living was the biggest issue among voters, it offered very little to address that.
Wood has paid a heavy price for his failure to report his shareholdings. By late July, when the party drew up its list, senior party officials and the Parliamentary leadership would have seen the polling and the reports from the focus groups, which may explain why he was dropped to 45 on the party list.
There will be those on the left of the party who will argue that Hipkins July decision to rule out a capital gains or wealth tax also cost the party votes.
That view has been reflected within the Caucus by David Parker, apparently supported by Phil Twyford, a teaming which led one Labour-linked wit to suggest their efforts could be dubbed “Kiwicoup.” (a reference to Twyford’s failed Kiwibuild housing policy).
Hipkins is now implying that a wealth or capital gains tax could be back on the table.
“I have also been clear with the caucus we lost, so therefore, we start again, and that means that everything comes back onto the table, and that includes a discussion around tax,” he said.
“So in 2026, our tax policy could look quite different.”
That, of course, leaves him having to explain away his July statement that there would be no wealth or capital gains tax in any government that he led.
“If you go back to the wording that I made at the time, which was that I was setting our tax policy for the next term of government,” he said.
“And I said very clearly at the time that we would do it term by term
“Any change to our tax approach would be, would only.be after a mandate.
“But we clearly lost.
“So now, now everything’s back on the table.”
Changing the tax policy will not be entirely in Hipkins’ hands.
The Labour Party, unlike National, allows its members to have a substantial input into policy, which they do through their branches, electorates, regions and their annual conference.
Remits from the conference then go to the party’s Policy Council (which includes five Caucus representatives), and it is that Council that confirms the party’s policy.
That is then incorporated into the election manifesto, jointly agreed upon by the Caucus and the party’s New Zealand Council.
The Policy Council plays a lesser role when the party is in Government, but when it is in Opposition, it is the author of the policy.
There were indications last night that the party will press hard on the issue of a wealth or capital gains tax.
The former president. Nigel Haworth, said in a blog post that Labour might choose to continue with the current preference to remain in the “centre”.
“There, it will make adjustments where it can, but, as we saw in the Captain’s Call on taxation, it will not confront the fundamental challenge of inequality, even as it grows.”
And a former party general secretary, Mike Smith, was particularly critical of Hipkins who he described as “a campaigner who promised to devote all his time to the campaign, and then dashed off to Papua New Guinea in the aborted hope of meeting Joe Biden, and to Vilnius to end up having to wait in the corridor to shake hands with Volodymyr Zelensky, seemed to be dancing to other agendas.
“The fact that he chose to announce no wealth tax ‘while I am leader’ from Vilnius rubbed salt in the wound and lost us votes.”
However Smith was pleased that all options “including tax” were now on the table and “there are the beginning of a realisation that the main task ahead is to rebuild a strong and progressive party.”
Nevertheless Hipkins was endorsed as leader by the Caucus yesterday. That required a vote for him from 60 per cent (or 20 members) of the Caucus.
Carmel Sepuloni was endorsed as deputy, replacing Kelvin Davis and regularising a situation where she had been deputy Prime Minister but not deputy leader.
Nevertheless, she is now placed in a useful position to succeed to the leadership at some time in the future, an ambition she claimed yesterday she did not have.
“I have no aspiration to be the Labour leader,” she said.
Endorsing Hipkins, who says he intends to lead Labour into the next election, was an unusual move for Labour.
Four times, in 1993 and 2008, 2011 and 2014, losing Labour leaders have been almost immediately replaced.
But the party might reflect that its most successful recent leader, Helen Clark, lost an election before she won one.
Hipkins is talking about the policy review starting from a blank sheet of paper.
That is a significant opportunity to bring the party into the 21st century and could offer a major contrast with a National Party, which will have been reduced by the compromises it is likely to have to make to form a government with ACT and NZ First.
Hipkins was asked yesterday to define what the Labour Party stood for.
His reply: “The Labour Party stands for progress, as we always have. We stand for a fairer New Zealand, one where those who are working hard are able to get ahead. Clearly, we need to reflect on the policy platform that we put before the electorate and refresh that.”