Colin James: Does history tell us anything about the 2020 election?

Colin James: Does history tell us anything about the 2020 election?

If you want to understand what is happening in this year’s election campaign, it’s worth looking to the past for guidance. Colin James delves into recent contests and finds some interesting parallels.


July 28 is 53 days before the 2020 election. Just 53 days before the 2017 election Jacinda Ardern walked into a press conference, newly made leader of the Labour Party but instantly operating as if she owned the job.

Just 67 days before the 2020 election Judith Collins walked into a press conference, newly made leader of the National Party and operating as if she owned the job.

A parallel? No two elections are the same. Still, can our electoral history give some pointers? Take the past 75 years.

Ardern’s government is finishing its first term. Past Labour history includes two one-term governments: 1957-60 and 1972-5.

Unlike in 1957, Labour had won big in 1972 (after a four-term National government) – big enough, it thought, to inure it against defeat.

But Rob Muldoon united his MPs, bedazzled National loyalists and added conservative “Rob’s Mob” low-middle-income blokes who a decade before would have been Labour. He stomped to a big win, exactly reversing the 1972 seat numbers.

Collins has some of Muldoon’s populism and his crunching of opponents. Add the fact that usually during a campaign, minds focus and prejudices and loyalties sharpen. Can Collins pull National out of its COVID-19 autumn-winter opinion poll trough? Can she get enough to govern?

Collins is not Muldoon. Unlike the unity around Ardern in 2017, Collins’ MPs’ unity is expedient and makeshift after three months of turmoil and two disgraced MP departures this month. She has historical mud on her political shoes which distances some National-leaners. She can do charm and fun but is better at bite.

Muldoon came into office off the back of the first oil shock, which Labour had tried to ride out by borrowing, when the changed global and local economic reality required substantial policy adjustment.

Ardern has also faced shocks but of a kind which enabled her to unite people (as John Key did after the 2008 GFC and Christchurch earthquakes). Her stratospheric COVID ratings were not an accident. The economy was in fair shape pre-COVID.

Muldoon failed the post-oil-shock adjustment test. In the electoral system Ardern operates under, his government might have had only one term. In the 1978 election, National was second to Labour in votes but the distorted first-past-the-post system delivered National more seats. The 1981 election was a repeat. He got three terms.

Then came a new young Labour leadership itching to redraft policy to fit the times, with smart, captivating David Lange as head preacher and crowd-puller. Labour won by a wide margin in 1984.

It modernised international, indigenous, women’s and some social policies – but also did an un-Labour deep economic deregulation. That it held on in 1987 despite being deserted by swathes of true-old-Labour voters was because market-economics deserters from National parked with Labour.

No lesson for true-Labour first-termer Ardern and challenger Collins there.

In National’s first post-1990 term Jim Bolger backed his more-market ideologues’ radical measures. Large numbers of conservative, especially older, Nationalists, did not relish radicalism. National nearly lost the 1993 election. Winston Peters, in tune with those deserters, made his first appearance leading New Zealand First: 8% and two seats.

“Bugger the pollsters,” Bolger grumped on election night. The pollsters had rated National comfortably ahead before the campaign: echoes of Muldoon’s 6%-10% pre-campaign leads over Labour in 1978 and 1981.

Helen Clark went into her snap election campaign in 2002 at the end of her first term with Labour at 51%-52% in polls. That plummeted to 41% in the election. Bill English helped her out by taking National down to a 100-year low of 21% for a lead opposition party.

Lessons for Ardern in those poll slumps?

National (up to 1999) and Labour (up to 2008) secured three terms leading governments. Then popular presenter Key and policy wonk English ran a commanding three terms from 2008 – helped by Labour selecting barely electable or non-electable leaders. Coming up to the 2020 election, National found two leaders lacking in two months.

Hope for Ardern?

The Clark and Key regimes had manageable governing arrangements with minor parties.

Ardern has had to manage a much more diverse arrangement: the Greens out to her left on the environment and far out to her left on tax and social policy; New Zealand First well out to her right on cherry-picked economic and social issues, as Peters has been underlining with attacks on Labour and the Greens.

Peters is 75. He served his apprenticeship under Muldoon and imbibed Muldoon’s populism. He harks back to that time. That has been his strength and his periodic downfall.

Peters’ 1996 coalition with Bolger (despite scathing mutual pre-election attacks) ended after 20 months when Jenny Shipley (who had ousted Bolger) fired Peters – for good reason. New Zealand First plunged to 4.3% in the 1999 election and stayed in Parliament only because Peters held Tauranga.

Clark put him in foreign affairs in 2005 and he mostly played the game until she had to suspend him over an undeclared donation in 2008. New Zealand First got 4.1% in the 2008 election and went out of Parliament.

Does that presage a third sub-5% score at the end of a third time in government and another exit from Parliament – if (as is likely?) Shane Jones doesn’t win Northland despite sloshing money around up there?

The skimpy opinion polling of recent months gives similar sub-5% readings to those of pre-campaign polls in 1999 and 2008.

There is other history. In 2002, 2011 and 2014, after pre-campaign poll readings below or around 5%, New Zealand First cleared 5% in the elections. But in 2002 New Zealand First was in Parliament’s backroom after its 1999 humiliation and got a publicity boost in the campaign, helped by National’s collapse. In 2011 it was coming from outside Parliament, so got only limited publicity before the campaign. In 2014 it was helped by Labour’s slide to 25%.

If New Zealand First does get back in Parliament (helped by National, as in 2002?) and if neither Labour-plus-Greens nor National-plus-ACT have a majority, would ageing, periodically cantankerous Peters be a recipe for instability, either in a government or from the cross-benches?

It is hard to see either Collins or Ardern embracing him. Collins would have to bring her MPs round (though Bolger’s experience and English’s 2017 bid says she conceivably could). Ardern, a collegial, consensus-driven leader, has endured multiple policy complications.

If New Zealand First is not in the post-election Parliament a 47% total would be enough for a party or coalition to govern.

In a straight Labour-Greens versus National-Act contest, the balance – absent a new big shock – tilts towards a second Ardern term if 2002 and 2011 are guides. That applies even if the Māori Party wins a seat.

One factor: don’t change governments while COVID-19 and associated havoc and dislocation hovers. With some missteps, Ardern and Co have won a reputation for handling it well. And Collins is starting late and is not Muldoon.

A deeper factor: Ardern and the Greens’ James Shaw are 40-somethings and most of their minister-level MPs are similarly aged; Collins and Gerry Brownlee are 60-somethings heading to Supergoldcard territory. Ardern and Co are groping towards policies geared to the 2020s – wellbeing economics is a significant departure from post-1980s orthodoxies – though a long way short of being the “government of transformation” promised in 2017. Collins and Co are geared more to the 1990s-2010s.

At a time of deep social, economic and environmental change there is a need for the sort of rethinking more likely to come from younger than from older policymakers.

That need for innovative policy is at the heart of this election – even if not overtly felt or wanted by most voters, who would like to get back to pre-COVID certainties.

That takes us back to 1975. By then there had been almost a decade of a slow-moving deep-down seismic change in economic realities but that seismic shift reached the electoral surface only in 1984.

The Greens’ 2020 campaign slogan is “think ahead”, not as adventurous as its predecessor Values’ 1975 “beyond tomorrow”. The nearest to “beyond tomorrow” now is tiny Opportunities.

But that’s not where the action is. Does Ardern get a second term and, if so, on what terms? History can’t tell us the answer but it can give us ways to think about it.


Colin James is a political journalist of nearly 50 years’ experience. He is the author of eight books, including 2017’s Unquiet Time: Aotearoa/New Zealand in a Fast Changing World. Email:


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