When a leader of a major political party resigns seven weeks out from an election, something is going badly wrong. In Andrew Little’s case, the New Zealand Labour Party’s polling had fallen to as low as 23%, and the party was facing another crippling loss to rival those of 2011 and 2014.
It’s easy to think of parties simply competing against each other for votes among a stable group of voters. But parties are also competing against disaffection from politics altogether, and in Labour’s case, disaffection is as big a political foe as the governing National Party.
The pie chart here shows the share of votes among parties currently represented in the New Zealand parliament, from the 2014 election. Seats in the New Zealand parliament are for the most part allocated according to the share of vote, and in 2014 National won almost a majority in their own right, enough to govern with support from the Māori Party, ACT and United Future.
But what this hides is the impact that non-voting can have on a party’s fortunes.
The graph below takes the votes of the four largest political parties in New Zealand from the past six elections, as a percentage of total voters on the electoral roll, and then compares these figures against non-voting.
The picture that emerges is a stark one. The National Party barely increased its share over the vote between 2008 and 2014, while Labour’s plummeted between 2005 and 2014 to just 19%. And in 2011 and 2014, non-voting actually surpassed votes for the second largest party.
With the exception of 2002, which was a disastrous year for the National Party, Labour have clearly suffered the most from disaffection, and in recent years, it has been National who has been the prime beneficiary. Interestingly, the Green and New Zealand First parties do not seem to suffer from general disaffection, signalling they have a small but solid core of support.
The former Prime Minister John Key was widely seen as a down to earth leader who anyone could have a beer with. But he was also ruthless in dealing with his opponents (helped it must be said by a fair amount of shooting themselves in the foot). This graph highlights that tactics that encourage potential rival supporters to simply sit on their hands, rather than vote, can make an important contribution to the final electoral equation, alongside attracting people to vote for one’s own party.
So the challenge for the new Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern, is to energise its voting base not just away from other parties, but away from not voting at all. At the time of writing, it was only two days since she was elected and no polls had been released. But the party reported being flooded with donations and volunteers within 24 hours, which may signal a re-energised party base in time for voting on September 23rd.