Josh Van Veen: A path to victory for NZ First

Josh Van Veen: A path to victory for NZ First

New Zealand First is facing a difficult struggle to get re-elected, but Josh Van Veen, who was once a researcher for Winston Peters, argues that there is still a very significant section of cultural conservatives who oppose mass immigration and political correctness and might yet be won back over to the party’s warnings about “woke pixie dust”.


If an election were held tomorrow, it is likely NZ First would not be returned to Parliament. With a public poll average of just 2.7% this year, the party is trailing the Act Party for the first time in a decade. Given the margin of error it is plausible that NZ First support is much closer to 5% but that would be no consolation if Shane Jones failed to win Northland. Winston Peters has just under two months to turn that around. Can he do it?

Data from the NZ Election Study (NZES) suggests that, on average, up to 20% of voters don’t make up (or change) their minds until the final week of campaigning. A small number decide on election day itself. These voters can and do make a difference. Particularly where minor parties such as NZ First and the Greens are concerned. Across the last three elections, a third of NZ First voters were late deciders. This figure was highest (40%) in 2011 when the party made a surprise comeback. Then, as now, the commentariat wrote Peters off early.

Looking back, one can argue that the party’s outsider status in 2011 was a major advantage. One that it sorely lacks now. The conservative coalition partner of a very popular Labour prime minister, NZ First has received considerable flack from both left and right. It is now struggling to capitalise on anti-establishment sentiment. Although NZ First can rightly claim to have acted as a “handbrake” against radical change during the last three years, right-leaning supporters may be disillusioned by the perceived betrayal of going with Labour rather than National.

Here the New Conservatives and perhaps Advance New Zealand may pose the biggest threat to NZ First. But what is clear from both the public opinion polls and a decade of election studies is that the party has a bedrock of support between two and three percent. These are the true believers who, when asked to identify which party they feel close to, unashamedly name NZ First. It is these voters who kept the party alive during its wilderness years in 2008-11 and who give Peters a fighting chance now.

The party is still a long way from five percent (roughly 135,000 votes). Who are the voters most likely to get NZ First over the line on 19 September? Many expected to see the party gain traction among National supporters who fear a Labour/Greens majority. They are who the “handbrake” message is pitched at. But the audience has not been very receptive. One explanation is that these voters have not forgiven Peters and NZ First for choosing Labour in 2017. It would also explain the resurrection of Act.

That makes the NZ First path to victory look more like a dead end. However, there is another constituency that may turn to Peters in the weeks ahead. We know from the NZES that 5% of 2017 Labour voters reported voting for NZ First in the previous election. Indeed, Peters’ likeability with Labour voters was relatively strong. Around 38% gave him a favourable rating whereas only 22% of National voters did. The most recent Colmar Brunton poll has confirmed that Peters is still trusted by a large number of Labour supporters (43%). So while it is true that NZ First voters may have preferred National in 2017, the party’s decision to go with Labour reflects a political reality that few have discerned. It could be what ends up saving the party from certain defeat on 19 September.

Back in July 2017, polls had NZ First on 12%, with much of that support coming from Labour. The phenomenal rise of Jacinda Ardern inspired those voters to return. But three years later, some may feel grateful to Peters for making a centre-left government possible. They are most likely to be cultural conservatives who oppose mass immigration and political correctness (“woke pixie dust”).  For example, nearly 20% of 2017 Labour voters agreed with the statement that “NZ culture is generally harmed by immigrants” and roughly the same proportion believed that immigration should be “reduced by a lot”.

The received wisdom of commentators is that New Zealanders don’t care about immigration or “the culture war” in 2020. People are more worried about keeping their jobs and making ends meet. With a global pandemic still raging, the country’s border is likely to remain closed for many months. Dire economic forecasts suggest we could be looking at another Great Depression. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that concerns about employment and quality of life can or should be disentangled from the question of mass immigration.

Despite border restrictions, the government approved more than 3,000 residence class visas and nearly 10,000 work visas in June. This does not appear to have gone unnoticed outside Wellington. The most recent Ipsos Issues Monitor (July) found that 9% of New Zealanders consider immigration to be one of the top three issues facing the country. This could matter on election day. The only question is where does that vote go? Labour and National have no enthusiasm for a population policy. Act and the Greens would both prefer a more open border in the long-run.

Of the mainstream parties, only NZ First appeals to the segment of voters that could be described as nationalistic. These are the people who British author David Goodhart has called the “Somewheres”. Most are not right-wing bigots. They are egalitarians who believe that a government’s first duty is to its poorest citizens. But for much of the past 30 years, that perspective has been ignored by policy-makers and politicians. Covid-19 may have changed this to some extent. However, the elite is still reluctant to answer questions of nationalism.

Winston Peters is a lone voice in that regard. Until now, NZ First has struggled to turn the wheels of bureaucracy. Labour and National have been reluctant to exercise political control over the immigration system. But 2020 could be different. With the status quo finally disrupted, there is an urgent need to review the policy framework that has been in place since 1987. This time Peters will stake his legacy on changing it.  And Labour stands to lose the most.


Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand.


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.