Gordon Campbell on the third person in this political marriage

threeimagethmubDepending on the recounts and the by-election, the centre-right will still have won only 59 seats in what will be a 122 or 123 seat Parliament. So it needs Winston Peters, big time. In return for him getting them across the line, it stands to reason that National and Act should have to pay a substantial price. Also, if this truly is to be Peters’ last rodeo, he may have a few legacy issues on his mind.

Meaning: Whatever the immediate policy concessions Peters can wring from the negotiations, he also has to consider the longer term consequences of being responsible for putting National and Act in power. If Peters wants his party to have a future after he’s gone, he has to maintain some distance from whatever ideological follies that Christopher Luxon and David Seymour intend to impose on New Zealand over the next three years. Once again, Peters has to juggle being a successful insider and a maverick outsider if NZF is to avoid the usual fate of minor parties under MMP. On this occasion, Peters may need to manage that trick from the cross benches.

Obviously, Act and National will want to pay a bargain price to secure Peters’ support on confidence and supply. Good luck with that. Down the years, pundits on the left and right alike have deplored the central role that Winston Peters plays in this country’s political life. Yet since he’s been put in this role so often, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a significant number of voters want it that way. In 2023, voters have again entrusted Peters with the task of deciding who will govern, and on what terms.

In fact, for all the talk about red tides and blue waves, social media has already noted the striking consistency in the balance between the centre-right and the centre-left blocs, once you take Peters out of the equation. This year, the centre-right won 59 seats and the centre- left won 55 seats, which has left New Zealand First in the driver’s seat with eight seats.

There’s nothing new about this. If you ignore a 2020 election that was uniquely shaped by the pandemic and by the cross-party appeal of Jacinda Ardern, there are notable similarities between the 2017 and 2023 results. Six years ago, the centre-right won 57 seats, the centre left won 56 seats and New Zealand First won nine seats that year, not eight. These days, we’re simply not a nation that’s prone to swinging wildly between the ideological extremes. The crucial difference, as the writer/academic Andrew Dean has pointed out, has come down to the bloc with which Peters has chosen to work.

Oddly, the basis on which Peters wields this power remains something of a mystery. Peters is a social conservative with little sympathy for the left’s identity politics. But he’s not an easy fit for the centre right, either. His views on the economy, international trade and foreign investment pre-date Rogernomics, in that he has staunchly opposed the neo-liberal views held sacred by the Thatcherite ideologues within the business community, the Luxon-led National Party and the Act Party. Peters is a conservative. Seymour is a radical. Peters doesn’t like or trust right wing radicals any more than he does the left wing variety.

Ever the pragmatist though, Peters found himself with little room to move during this year’s election campaign. Given the Labour government’s unpopularity, any hint that New Zealand First might put Labour back in power again would have been the kiss of death to any hopes of NZF reaching the 5% MMP threshold. Ironically though, Peters still has more in common with Chris Hipkins on economic policy and foreign investment than he has with his new friends on the centre-right.

From early on in this election cycle, Peters targeted Act’s support base. To that end, Peters walked among the protesters at Parliament, and successfully wooed the anti-Establishment, anti-vaccine-mandate bloc of voters. This was largely at the expense of David Seymour, whose decision to meekly abide by the Beltway consensus and not talk to the protesters put a lasting dent in his free speech credentials. Conspiracy theorists have long memories.

Within the negotiations, Peters’ scepticism about free market ideology – and about the current affordability of tax cuts- will probably delay the formation of a new government. As mentioned, that scepticism could also motivate Peters to distance NZF from such policies, by choosing to sit on the cross benches.

If that leaves the National-led government needing in future to run its major legislation past Peters beforehand, all well and good. Such a gatekeeper role would (a) keep faith with New Zealand First supporters and (b) keep the party firmly in the spotlight for the next three years.

Labouring on

If last week’s final vote count brought bad news for National and Act, the news was no better for Labour. Plainly, any last minute “surge” before election day was to the Greens and to Te Pāti Maori, not to Labour. Labour barely increased its election night percentage of 26.85% of the vote to 26.91% after the specials.

Labour die-hards would blame some of their losses – e.g. Banks Peninsula and New Lynn – on vote splitting by the left. It might be better advised to look in the mirror. Ultimately, centre-left voters deserted Labour for parties with a more recognisably left-wing mix of policies. Regardless, some senior Labour MPs have reportedly urged Chris Hipkins to stay on for a year or so, before a managed handover, probably to Carmel Sepuloni. That transition plan is likely to be put on the rails without any meaningful input from the party membership, and certainly before any review is conducted into the reasons for this year’s disastrous performance.

What added value Hipkins can bring to Labour over the next year is debatable. For the next 12 months, National will be liable to blame the Labour legacy for all of its problems, and Hipkins – instead of using his debating skills to hold Luxon to account – will probably end up spending most of his time defending the record of his administration. In that respect, holding onto Hipkins as a security blanket would be likely to make 2024 an extension of the 2023 election campaign.

No real surprise though, that Labour’s parliamentary leadership should be so resistant to self-reflection, and to any change of course. “No left turn” has become Labour’s default setting.

Footnote One: Act’s Brooke Van Velden was mistaken on RNZ this morning in calling for a speedy conclusion to the negotiations so that it can get on with delivering the changes the public voted for. Reality check: Over 91% of the public did not vote for the changes Act is promoting. There is precious little in the way of a public mandate for the policies Act has been proposing, and if Peters shoots most of them down, he would be doing so from a sound democratic foundation.

Footnote Two: In Banks Peninsula, the Greens candidate (and fresh water ecologist) Lam Phan increased her sizeable election night tally of 6,370 to 8,325 in a seat that Labour eventually lost by 396 votes. As a percentage of the total electoral votes cast for the three main parties in Banks Peninsula, Lam’s share increased from 15.4% on election night to 19.07 % after the specials had been counted. A similar story in New Lynn, where Greens candidate Steve Abel increased the party’s electorate vote from 3,804 on election night to 5,376 after specials, in a seat Labour eventually lost by 1,013 votes.

If Labour wants to avoid being the loser from further such defections in future, the message that should come through loud and clear from any election loss review is that Labour has to give left wing voters better reasons to stay faithful. By the time of its annual AGM in mid 2024 the Greens are likely to have refreshed their party by making Chloe Swarbrick their new co-leader.

Labour, by contrast, seems resistant to renewal. Its parliamentary leadership still appears to think that merely being ‘not as bad as National’ is a winning sales pitch.