Three years ago, David Cunliffe led the New Zealand Labour Party to its worst electoral defeat in recent history. Labour received barely a quarter of the vote. NZ Herald journalist Claire Trevett described the 2014 result as ‘rock bottom’– suggesting it could not get any worse. But seven-and-a-half-weeks out from election day 2017, things are worse.
Opinion polls now put support for Labour under 25%. Confronted with the prospect of losing his seat in Parliament, Andrew Little resigned from the leadership on Tuesday. The party has selected a charismatic young new leader in Jacinda Ardern. She promises a more positive style of leadership and many see her as having ‘the x-factor’. But any substantive changes to policy or strategy are unlikely this close to an election.
So, can Labour win?
I spent much of last year attempting to explain the long-term decline of Labour. My research culminated in a Master of Arts thesis titled The Strange Death of Labourism: Class Realignment in Britain and New Zealand? The basic argument of my thesis is that neither the British Labour Party nor the New Zealand Labour Party has won a general election without a substantial lead in the working-class vote.
During the 1960s, election surveys in Britain and New Zealand established the prevalence of class voting. These pioneering studies used a simple dichotomy to operationalise social class. Those voters in manual employment were classified as ‘working-class’ and those in non-manual employment were ‘middle-class’.
The first major survey of New Zealand voters was conducted in 1963 by Victoria University of Wellington. With a sample size of 1,555 across the lower North Island, it is the only ‘national’ survey prior to 1975. The survey found that 60% of voters in working-class households voted Labour compared to 30% of those in middle-class households. The class basis of New Zealand politics was a truism.
However, during the 1990s class voting went into decline. One way of measuring this is the Alford Index which is calculated by subtracting the percentage of Labour’s middle-class vote from the percentage of its working-class vote. On that score, the level of class voting fell from 30% in 1963 to 9% in 1996.
The rise of proportional representation and new parties were major factors. The Alliance and NZ First made significant inroads into the Labour vote. This led many academics, commentators and political strategists to downplay the importance of social class in electoral politics. Thus, greater weight was given to ‘post-material’ issues such as environmentalism, race and gender. But class appeal remained strong.
In my research, I analysed changes in the frequency of working-class support for Labour in the New Zealand Election Study from 1996 to 2014. But rather than use the restrictive manual/non-manual dichotomy, I broadened the definition of working-class to include those in low or semi-skilled non-manual work and classified these as ‘lower occupations’. Occupation was then cross-tabulated with vote and weighted to ensure the samples were representative of the general population.
In 1996, Labour won 32% of the ‘lower occupation’ vote and 26% of the ‘other occupation’ vote. National won 29% and 37% respectively. But three years later, Helen Clark led Labour into government. I contend that it was the working-class which put it there. Whereas 47% of those in lower occupations voted Labour, only 32% of those in middle-class (‘other’) occupations did so.
Compare this to National. In 1999, it received a mere 22% of lower occupation voters but 37% of other occupation voters. The mirror image would suggest relative class voting remained alive and well in New Zealand. Therefore, Clark’s success was to mobilise the working-class to support the Labour cause.
Clark went on to win two more terms. In 2002, Labour increased its share of the middle-class vote to 40%. In 2005, this figure was down to 38%, but still higher than 1996 or 1999. Thus, we see that Clark was successful in broadening Labour’s appeal while also retaining a solid core of working-class support.
Occupation and vote (NZES 1996-2014).
The post-Clark Labour Party has failed on both counts. In 2011, the middle-class vote fell to 20% while the working-class vote went below 40% for the first time since 1996. Three years later, National – the party of businessmen and farmers – ‘won’ the working-class vote: 38% to 35%. Yet National’s share of the working-class vote was the same as it had been in 2008. This trend leads one to conclude that a large proportion of the working-class are voting for minor parties. In 2014, the Greens and NZ First each won 9% of the working-class vote.
So, there is a more fundamental issue than whether Labour can win the election. Its long-term survival may depend on whether it can win the working-class vote (up to 40% of the electorate). If there is even a modest increase of support for Labour on 23 September, this would reverse a long-term trend of decline. That alone should be regarded as a success.
Josh Van Veen wrote his MA in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.