New Zealand General Election: The English Patience


It may be an indictment of the modern political media that the New Zealand was hyped up to the level it was in certain quarters.

When the dust has settled on the history books that record the history of the world’s oldest universal democracy (well, if Māori representation is excluded) the facts will show that Bill English’s National Party won handily over the Labour Party, with 58 seats to 45, leaving National only three seats short of a total majority (something that has never been achieved under New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional Voting System). This represents a fourth election win for the National government, and the first for English after he replaced former PM John Key last year.

The reason for the excitement actually came from the losing Labour Party. After the 2014 election (New Zealand has triennial parliaments) Labour were left on 32 seats to National’s 60 and Andrew Little became leader. With Little at the helm, Labour actually went backwards, and looked on course to lose seats to National, which may have contributed to Key handing over the reins to his experienced Finance Minister English. However, in a shock move, Little resigned the Labour leadership just seven weeks before the election and was replaced by his youthful deputy Jacinda Ardern, an MP since 2008.

Ardern’s elevation to the leadership acted as a catalyst for Labour and the party saw their fortunes improve, as evidenced by the 13 seat improvement which will have secured her leadership going forward. Though Ardern’s popularity has been the main media story, English ran a quietly strong campaign, emphasising the economic stability delivered by the National government in the wake of the global financial crisis, and also his own popularity as Finance Minister in that government.

However, despite neither party having an overall majority, the odds in coalition talks are stacked hugely in National’s favour. The third place party was New Zealand First, a party on the right of the political spectrum, who won 9 seats and would seem natural bedfellows to National. However, they were not included in any of Key’s governments and have been in opposition to National throughout the last parliament. The idea of them joining with Labour also isn’t as unthinkable as, say, UK Labour and UKIP entering into coalition, given that NZ First have a fairly centrist economic policy and Ardern advocated cutting immigration during the campaign. However, Labour would require NZ First and the fourth placed Greens (7 seats) to support them in government, and squaring the circle between those two parties would seemingly be impossible.

Given that no party has ever won a majority under New Zealand’s MMP voting system, the population are used to periods of uncertainty following elections (unlike in the UK, where a hung parliament always seems to be reported as a near apocalyptic event and there is ridiculous urgency in government formation). That there may be no agreement until October is accepted in the so-called ‘Shaky Isles’, and it will likely be more of a confidence-and-supply agreement (as was the case in the preceding parliament) rather than any formal coalition.

In other storylines from the election, two of the three parties that supported the National government in the last parliament have now disappeared from the parliamentary landscape. The United Front which had held one seat (the leader, Peter Dunne in Ōhāriu) were somewhat undermined by Dunne not standing for re-election, and the seat went to Labour. More shockingly, the Māori Party lost both of their seats, leaving them with no MPs for the first time since the party was founded in 2005, and Labour with total dominance in the eight electorates specifically designated for Māori voters.

Overall, the election has set up New Zealand’s 52nd parliament to be far more interesting than the previous parliament. Labour look to be back on a path to power for the first time since Helen Clark’s government left power in 2008, but Ardern’s leadership thus far has only been tested in a campaign setting. Now she has to prove herself in the daily grind of parliamentary politics, and attempt to keep up her’s and Labour’s momentum from this campaign.

If October sees the likely outcome of a National-NZ First deal to keep Bill English in power then he must steer National through its fourth term. He is still popular, but no New Zealand ministry since the end of World War Two has been in power for more than 12 years, so potentially in 2020 there may be legitimate hype around the general election.


2nd Year Modern History and Politics student. Moans a lot about politics, unlikely to actually do anything about it. Direct complaints towards @FSGLoveman on Twitter.

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