22 January 2012

Heads, National wins – tails, Labour loses

One big feature of the last election was the low voter turn-out. From an estimated eligible population of 3,276,000, the number enrolled was 3,070,847. That’s a 93.74% enrolment rate. But 2,257,336 votes were counted, or only 68.9% of the estimated eligible population. There were one million or more eligible citizens who did not vote. Enough silence to transform the political landscape (or not)!

Traditionally it’s thought that a low turn-out is bad news for Labour, and the last election reinforces that. Looking at the results for each general electorate, there is a negative correlation between the number of party votes for Labour by electorate and the total number of votes. This is particularly noticeable in South Auckland electorates (those who saved Labour’s arse in 2005!). In Maori electorates, the turnouts were consistently very low. Only 56.7% of people on the Maori rolls actually voted. People who otherwise might have voted Labour were the ones most likely not to vote at all.

Here’s another telling statistic: 762,897 people voted for a Labour candidate in their electorates; but only 614,964 gave Labour their party vote. Labour could have won close to 34% of the party vote if loyalties to local Labour candidates had been equal to loyalty to the party as a whole. So, even those who did get out and vote, and who were supportive of local Labour MPs, were often splitting their votes. Remember the debate about Labour’s election billboards?

It’s an easy bet that those one million non-voters are younger, poorer and more probably unemployed than the average New Zealander. Any Labour leader who can connect with those people could be on to a winner. But how likely is that? Consider the risks of trying to woo them, only to find that they still won’t vote, because they just can’t relate to the white faces on the TV screen. We are talking about cleaners, kitchen hands, check-out counter operators, and illiterate unemployed youth. Many of them who have jobs are working on election day and/or may not have thought about voting at all.

What’s the alternative, then? In marketing terms, National and Labour are competing for a shrinking demographic of voters: that is, the middle-class voters, and not the poorer non-voters about whom Labour has forgotten. Championing the rights of those at the losing end of the spectrum is no longer a viable electoral proposition for this Labour Party. The Mana Party tried to fill that gap, but it got them hardly any votes at all (one per cent!)

This is the sad fact of New Zealand society today, as we have become more diverse and more unequal. Those who most need to be heard are abandoned politically and economically by the major 'left' party – and they in turn are abandoning the ballot-box. They simply go un-represented politically, and their voices are silenced.

Like any major party, Labour has to straddle a wide social contradiction – in their case, between the need to capture the middle-class centre, and the lower-paid workers and the unemployed. If the priority is to gain office, Labour will be tempted to cater more to the former (who vote) and less to the latter (who don’t). But then Labour loses a very large potential support base (one that National has had no chance of winning) and has to compete with National on their common turf. Labour’s unearned reputation for being ‘socialist’ and ‘soft on welfare’, however, means it may only win that contest on those occasions when the middle class gets so fed up with National they decide it’s time for a change. That leaves Labour, like before, as the party of the exception, rather than the norm.

The worst possibility is that a demagogic far-right party hoovers up those unclaimed low-income voters… If that happens, I know whom to blame.


At 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grant, where do the Greens come into this equation? Jamie.


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