Josh Van Veen: NZ First Unbowed

Josh Van Veen: NZ First Unbowed

Here’s what New Zealand First needs to do to return to power in 2023 – according to Josh Van Veen, who was at the party’s conference in the weekend.

The improbability of NZ First returning to power cannot be overstated. Between 2017 and 2020, support for the party collapsed from 7.2% to 2.6%. With barely a third of its 2020 vote, and no electorate seat, NZ First appears to be a spent force. But the party faithful were in high spirits over the weekend, and their leader is refusing to give up.

Around 150 delegates gathered at the Waipuna Hotel Conference Centre in Highbrook, Auckland, for the 28th NZ First annual convention. Many have been with the party for years but there were newcomers too. Despite its worst electoral result in history, the party reported the highest number of members since 2017. Even old members who once fell out have returned. 

And who were they? The convention floor was a microcosm of New Zealand society: bi-cultural and provincial. Delegates included small business owners, farmers, teachers, blue-collar workers and students. While the attendees were predominantly over-50, the room was much younger than in previous years. This is a party still full of life.

There was an unequivocal, unapologetic and unrelenting commitment to carry on. Of course, media interest in the convention focused on Winston Peters. But the members genuinely see their party as more than its leader. In short their vision is that of New Zealand as the quintessential small town; a place where everyone knows one another, and there is a collective sense of belonging.

That nostalgic vision is likely to endure, no matter what. A student of political history cannot help but see parallels with Social Credit. Once the perennial third party of New Zealand politics, it was overtaken by events and consigned to history in the MMP era. Ironically, NZ First played a role in that demise, with many former Social Credit voters rallying around Winston Peters.

They might have seen in him something of the charismatic Bruce Beetham, who led Social Credit from 1972 until it was rebranded as the Democratic Party in 1986. Beetham and a hardcore of monetary reformers split from the party to further the cause elsewhere. Four decades later, Beetham is forgotten but his movement lives on in the hearts and minds of a few.

While the Democrats eventually joined the Alliance, other Social Crediters like the late Terry Heffernan and Gary Knapp became NZ Firsters. A small number would regroup as Democrats for Social Credit in the 2000s before finally returning to their old banner for the 2020 general election. They secured just 0.05% of the vote despite claiming vindication for their ideas in the Covid recovery. 

The same fate could meet NZ First. Peters, like Beetham, won’t give up on the cause. Having led his party back from a catastrophic defeat once before, he appears determined to ensure it can survive another term in the wilderness. In his speech to the members on Sunday afternoon, Peters declared the party would be back. He even paraphrased from William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus (‘Our heads are bloody, but unbowed’). 

Unlike Beetham, however, Peters has remained in control of his party. There can be no doubt that he intends to run in 2023. But whether NZ First is successful will depend on whether it can rise above cultural divisions and offer a positive, unifying vision of what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century. It was revealing that Peters’ most evocative lines came when he spoke about fairness and equality of opportunity.

In typical Peters’ fashion, it was a positive vision couched in negative language. “Some of us – and I want to say this to you in the media – are sick and tired of your paternalism!” He shouted to applause. “Some of us think that everyone is equal! Some of us think that given the tools, the equipment, the chance, the education and the encouragement we can be as good as anybody! That’s our idea of equality!”

He was talking about affirmative action. As a Māori, it is clear that Peters has no time for ‘Critical Race Theory’ or the demonisation of Pākeha. Anyone who knows him can attest that Peters sincerely believes in Martin Luther King Junior’s dream of a world where one is not judged for the colour of their skin ‘but by the content of their character’. It is what most New Zealanders would understand to be anti-racism. 

Indeed, the main challenge for the party is not so much relevance but how to appeal to conflicting values. This is borne out in analysis of the New Zealand Election Study (NZES). In 2017, the typical NZ First voter was a 60 year old working-class Pākehā male who lived in a provincial North Island town and leaned National. But this person was not the stereotypical ‘redneck’ motivated by fear and prejudice.

They supported the abolition of Māori seats but were concerned about growing inequality, and had a favourable opinion of Jacinda Ardern. While the archetypal NZ First voter believed immigration should be reduced ‘by a lot’, they still believed immigrants were ‘generally good’ for the economy and disagreed with the claim that immigrants harm New Zealand culture. 

This profile is quite different to the right-wing conspiracy theorist who NZ Herald columnist Matthew Hooton had in mind last year when he speculated about a hypothetical merger of NZ First, the New Conservatives and other ‘populist’ parties. While such voters do exist, they are not a significant part of the NZ First constituency. 

A recent study published in the academic journal Political Science dispels this persistent myth beloved of the commentariat.  American political scientist Todd Donovan analysed data from the NZES going back to 1996 and compared trends in support for NZ First with right-wing populist parties around the world, including the US Republican Party. Donovan found no relationship between right-wing ideology and support for NZ First. 

In fact, its supporters are probably much closer to the ‘median voter’ than Hooton is comfortable with. But it appears that those advising Peters through the last campaign were also misguided in their understanding of the NZ First voter base. The party spent too much time appealing to the wrong sentiment. It was hope, not anger, that characterised the 2020 general election.

Those who had once gravitated to NZ First were looking for security and a positive vision of the future amid global chaos. In the end it was Ardern who fulfilled that need. It explains why a poll in the lead up to election day found that 43% of 2017 NZ First voters intended to vote for Labour; a finding supported by data from TVNZ’s Vote Compass. 

Peters will need to rise above the culture war if he is to win back those voters. And it is what his party faithful expect of him.


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.