Together, Not Apart: In political terms, 2020 represents the exact reverse of 1984. Then, the tide was running with the challengers. Now, it is running with the incumbents. If Labour and the Greens can plausibly guarantee to keep us working and keep us safe, then traditional demographic voting patterns will cease to matter. Young and old, rich and poor, brown and white will repay Jacinda with a landslide.
HERE WE GO AGAIN. Young New Zealanders are not registering to vote in anything like the numbers needed to re-elect Jacinda Ardern. Labour relies on the voters aged between 25 and 55 years-of-age to supply the bulk of its Party Vote. If voters aged between 18 and 25 registered and voted in anything like the same numbers as the centre-left’s core vote, Labour would long ago have become New Zealand’s “natural party of government”.
Labour’s vulnerability stems not only from the unwillingness of 18-25 year-olds to engage with and participate in electoral politics, but also from the determination of older voters to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, those older voices chorus persistently for the Right.
This raises the grim spectre of a right-wing victory secured almost entirely by the toxic combination of an extremely high percentage of older voters turning out to vote for the National Party, and a comparatively low percentage of younger voters actually bothering to vote Labour or Green. If Judith Collins makes sure she does nothing to dissuade the over-55s from following their usual political instincts, and if Jacinda Ardern cannot persuade the youngest cohort of voters to come out for her in record numbers, then National could end up defeating Labour on 19 September.
The $64,000 question for Labour is: “How do we prevent this from happening?”
It’s not enough to say that the party should offer 18-25 year-olds a manifesto shaped to fit their preferences. Given that those aged between 18 and 25 are consistently the staunchest supporters of radical left-wing economic, social and environmental policies, constructing Labour’s platform to reflect their preferences exclusively would, almost certainly, alienate the support of older voters. If an 80-90 percent turnout of the youngest voting cohort could be guaranteed, it might be worth the risk. The problem is, not even the proudly radical policies of the Greens are enough to make 18-25 year-olds turn out like the over-70s.
Perhaps the only circumstances in which the 18-25 cohort could be lured to the polls in great numbers would be those in which the hunger for national unity, stimulated by a once-in-a-generation confluence of multiple interests, was strong enough to generate a massive cross-class and cross-generational spike in electoral participation.
Something very close to this occurred in the snap-election of 1984. Economic controls usually reserved for wartime, including wage, price, rent and interest-rate “freezes”, combined with high levels of unemployment and rapidly rising fears of a nuclear holocaust to produce a nationwide determination to change the government. Workers and employers united against Muldoon’s dirigiste economic management. Old and young came together to create a nuclear-free New Zealand.
Against this extraordinary coalition, the National Government of Rob Muldoon, which had come to epitomise everything hostile and/or resistant to what many argued were long overdue social and economic changes, didn’t stand a chance. The highest turn out in New Zealand political history – 93.7 percent of registered voters – swept Muldoon and his divisive policies out of office and ushered in an unexpected (and unannounced) revolution.
The question to be answered, just 8 weeks out from the 2020 general election, is whether or not a similar tidal wave of change is gathering?
While there is, indisputably, a strong desire among the politically engaged to seize the opportunity provided by Covid-19 to undertake a general social, economic and environmental “re-set”, it in no way matches the “Spirit of ‘84”. Which is not to say that the cross-class, cross-generational momentum that characterised 1984 isn’t also present in 2020. On this occasion, however, the public mood may best be summarised by paraphrasing Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring:
“Keep us working, and keep us safe!”
The still-raging global Covid-19 pandemic has drawn New Zealanders together in ways not seen since World War II. Jacinda Ardern’s “Team of Five Million” may be a brilliant rhetorical flourish, but that doesn’t make it an inaccurate description of the current Kiwi voter’s self-congratulatory self-perception.
In political terms, 2020 represents the exact reverse of 1984. Then, the tide was running with the challengers. Now, it is running with the incumbents. If Labour and the Greens can plausibly guarantee to keep us working and keep us safe, then traditional demographic voting patterns will cease to matter. Young and old, rich and poor, brown and white will repay Jacinda with a landslide.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 July 2020.