Bryce Edwards: National is failing to inspire voters

Bryce Edwards: National is failing to inspire voters

Labour’s Hamilton West by-election loss at the weekend has been widely described as a disaster for the party, illustrating just how much the tide has turned on the Government.

But what did the by-election result say about the state of the National Party? Tama Potaka’s win was a vote of confidence in him as a candidate and for the party as a whole. Winning 46 per cent of the vote was a strong performance, easily beating the Labour candidate’s 30 per cent support.

National failed to inspire voters in Hamilton West

However, the extremely low voter turnout really does need to be considered when evaluating National’s success. According to the Electoral Commission, the eligible voting population in Hamilton West is about 57,211. Therefore, 14,392 votes is a turnout of only about 25 per cent. (Some news reports suggest a higher turnout figure, but they’re failing to include the number of eligible voters in Hamilton West who weren’t enrolled.)

What’s more, Potaka’s winning total of 6629 represents the endorsement of less than 12 per cent of eligible voters in Hamilton West. So while Potaka crushed his Labour opponent, a sober reading of the result shows it was somewhat less than the total victory it appears to be.

The problem is that National, by and large, failed to mobilise support for their candidate. Potaka actually received 7807 fewer votes than National’s losing candidate in 2020, Tim McIndoe – so that’s less than half the vote National mobilised just two years ago at a time when the tide was going out on the party.

Despite Luxon’s underdog posturing in the run-up to election day it would have been shocking if National hadn’t won, as the party had everything going in its favour. The cost of living crisis, together with the increased concern about crime and ram raids on shops provided the perfect conditions for National to take the seat off Labour. What’s more, the whole contest had been sparked by the embarrassing resignation of Gaurav Sharma, who had made all sorts of damaging accusations about bullying in the Labour Government.

National’s failure to take advantage of Labour’s woes

In mobilising only 12 per cent of eligible Hamilton West voters to choose Potaka, the by-election highlights how National is also failing to convince voters throughout the rest of the country.

Right now, the National Party is polling consistently above its Labour rival, and while this is a significant turnaround from the last few years, there needs to be an acknowledgement that National is still trapped in the high 30s – the most recent Curia poll had National on 39 per cent, the Kantar poll had them on 38 per cent.

Shouldn’t National be doing better than this? The Labour Government has had a terrible year, handing the Opposition the best conditions to prosper in years, and yet National hasn’t been able to take full advantage of this. The feeling inside National must be that they should currently be at least ten points ahead of Labour rather than just a few.

On just about every major issue that is important to voters, Labour has been in trouble throughout 2022. The crises keep coming – the housing crisis and the cost of living crisis are the two big ones in which voters have great reason to be most dissatisfied with Labour’s performance. But there have been so many other failures that have created the perfect conditions for the Opposition. From the unconvincing Three Waters reforms through to Hate Speech laws and the RNZ-TVNZ merger, Labour has stumbled.

National’s inability to leverage Labour’s weaknesses more fully is partly down to Christopher Luxon. On the one hand, the new leader has obviously done well to keep his party united and lift their support up. And his own preferred prime minister poll numbers are relatively good. But has he really inspired the public? There’s not much evidence of it.

Luxon is probably aware of his need to appear to be more substantial. Hence in an RNZ interview this morning he talks of the need to carry out reforms that are more than just “incrementalism”. The RNZ news item is titled, “Christopher Luxon pledges to be bolder if elected”.

National failing to present an alternative

Overall, National is doing a relatively good job of opposing the Labour Government, but is failing to present a convincing alternative to the status quo. Yes, the true-blue supporters are relatively happy that the party is more coherent and organised than in the past. But National is currently far too bland and thin in vision to really win over many of the voters that are losing faith in Labour.

Part of the reason is the Act Party. David Seymour is likely to be labelled the “Politician of the Year” by many commentators. His boldness and chutzpa put Luxon to shame. And so for as long as Act is positioning itself as the “rightwing party of ideas and principles”, then National is going to look rather uninspiring.

The blandness of National is also by design rather than neglect. National strategists have obviously decided to take a small target approach, in which they try to minimise the areas in which they can be critiqued on. By deliberately not projecting an alternative to Labour, National will be hoping to avoid alienating any floating, centrist voters.

Defenders of National might suggest that National is keeping its powder dry for the election campaign. And, yes, more policies will be released on the campaign trial. But they are likely to be more bland than bold.

National’s boldest policy so far has been its military academy announcement. And we saw last week that this is popular – 60 per cent believe that serious youth offenders should indeed be sent to bootcamps. Meanwhile, crime and justice experts continue to view the policy as anything more than populism.

The Hamilton-West by-election also indicated that a focus on law and order is the one area that National is willing to be bold and radical on. The issue of ram raids and crime was successfully leveraged by candidate Tama Potaka in a sign of what we might expect much more of from National in 2023.

But will a hard line on law and order be enough to get National’s vote up in the 40s? It’s unlikely. To win over former Labour voters, National will have to release some convincing policies to deal with the housing crisis and the cost of living. And more widely, it needs to show what it actually stands for – because that is far from clear at the moment.

Luxon will also have to lift his game. In 2022 he has been too gaffe-prone and unimpressive in his media interviews. But the bigger problem is that people generally find him too bland and empty.

National is clearly doing quite well at the moment, and is very much the odds-on favourite to be in government in a year’s time. New Zealand doesn’t allow political gambling, but the Australian betting sites are currently only paying $1.65 for a National win, versus $2.20 for a Labour win – which suggests there is about a 60 per cent chance of a change of government.

But before National gets too complacent, it should continue to ponder why its successful by-election candidate only managed to mobilise 12 per cent of the eligible electorate to turn out for him, and why National is struggling to hit 40 per cent support in highly-favourable conditions.

National and Luxon are clearly still failing to inspire.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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


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