The Hunt for Red October: Musings on Taieri

So New Zealand has had its general election. Jacinda Ardern has managed a single-party majority government, New Zealand’s first in twenty-six years, and its first since the adoption of proportional representation. I intend to do a comment on that further down the line – my feelings on the Sunday After are that the Left should not get too excited. It may be Labour’s greatest vote share since 1946 (and the best for any party since 1951), but there are some causes for worry that I feel everyone is missing.

Today, however, I thought I would narrow my focus down, with some musings on my own electorate, Taieri.

If I had to sum up my thoughts:

  • Ingrid Leary (Labour) will be feeling more elated than she probably should.
  • Liam Kernaghan (National) will be feeling more depressed than he probably should.
  • The New Zealand news media clearly know nothing about anything south of the Waitaki River.
  • Clutha and South Dunedin are more open to ACT than anyone dared imagine (or dared fear).
  • There was a marked split between Advance Voting and On-the-Day Voting.

In large part, this was all a matter of expectations.

Dunedin South from 2011 onwards had become distinctly less Labour-friendly, especially in the Mosgiel and western parts of the electorate. Whether this was because of the (often controversial) local Labour MP, Clare Curran, can be debated, though it should be noted that the seat was not in any danger of actually flipping at the candidate level. Curran won in 2017 by some 13%, in an election where National won the nationwide party vote by about 7%. National won the party vote in Dunedin South in 2011 and 2014, on account of winning the nationwide party vote by about 20%, but even then Curran was still not in any danger of losing the electorate herself.

Come the 2020 boundary changes. Dunedin South acquired a new name (Taieri), and expanded into rural South Otago, taking in about three-quarters of the Clutha. Curran retired, and Labour selected Auckland journalist, Ingrid Leary, as its replacement candidate.

Now, this got National very excited. After all, the once impregnable Red Fortress of Dunedin South no longer seemed what it once was… and now it was absorbing National-supporting rural areas. Clutha has never actually had a Labour MP… so this must mean that Taieri was ripe for the picking?

Well, no. And this really reflects the New Zealand media’s lack of understanding of this region – “conventional wisdom” can be a dangerous thing.

Because, yes, Clutha is Blue. Yes, it has never had a Labour MP. My own great-grandfather, John Keenan, was Labour candidate (aged 69!) for the area in 1949, and he never had a hope. But it is not Dark Blue, and is certainly not to be compared with the ultra-violet farmland of Southland.

Broadly speaking, the following attributes identify a New Zealand rural area as being more likely to vote strongly National:

  • Sheep, Beef, and Dairy Farming
  • Orchards and Tourism
  • Wealthy

By contrast, the following attributes identify a New Zealand rural area as being potentially more competitive for Labour:

  • Timber and Mining
  • Freezing Works, Mills, and Processing Centres
  • Poorer

Thus the West Coast – a rural seat – is ancestrally Labour, because it is timber and (former) mining country. Moreover, Labour tends to do better in the rural parts of the lower North Island than the rural parts of the upper North. In fact, upper North Island rural areas have traditionally ditched Labour in favour of New Zealand First or Social Credit. Both those parties have historically won Northland.

So what does that say about Clutha? Well, of the areas added into Taieri by the boundary changes, there are four population centres of significance – Balclutha, Milton, Lawrence, and Kaitangata. Balclutha has a nearby Freezing Works, Milton has a history of milling, and Kaitangata is coal-mining country. Balclutha is accordingly moderately National (albeit capable of voting Labour in good years), Milton is more of a bellwether, and Kaitangata is safe Labour – which has historically made it a solitary speck of Red in a succession of safe National seats. Only Lawrence can legitimately claim to be a National stronghold.

As for the point that Clutha has never had a Labour MP, it is worth remembering that boundaries are funny things. In 1981, a level-pegging year between National and Labour, Clutha was actually marginal – because the electorate was coastal-based, and the seat included Mosgiel. In 1984, a comfortable Labour win nationwide, Clutha was comfortably National, because the electorate got redrawn inland. From the introduction of proportional representation until 2017, Clutha was lumped in with rural Southland and wealthy, touristy Queenstown – both of which are truly Dark Blue.

So taking Clutha away from safe National, and giving it to safe Labour? That just means you have a Light Blue section of what is still a Red seat. It is not enough to make the seat competitive, except in situations where Labour faces a 2014-style meltdown. Taieri can only be the cherry on top of a crushing National landslide, and while the past decade has thrown up a couple such landslides, this year was never going to be one. In a year of a 2002-style Labour landslide (or even a moderate National advantage like 2017), Taieri is perfectly safe. And so it proved.

The problem is that National (and the media) did not seem to realise these nuances, and accordingly talked up Liam Kernaghan as being in with a non-trivial shot. To be fair, Labour was not much better, basically throwing the kitchen sink into propping up Ingrid Leary, to a degree where they might have been better off in helping out Invercargill. Hence Liam probably being depressed, and Ingrid probably being elated.

The truth is that… with the proper expectations, it was an unspectacular night for Labour in this part of the country (except, in a surreal twist, Southland and Queenstown). Sure, in terms of raw party votes, Dunedin delivered as per tradition, but with the candidate vote… Leary was pottering along with a 5,000-ish vote margin over Kernaghan for most of the night, before the urban booths ballooned that out to 11,000 or so. With such a crushing margin in the party vote, something approaching 15,000 votes – or even 17,000 or 18,000 – would be more in-line with a True Labour Landslide.

In fact, given the circumstances, Kernaghan should probably be pretty happy that he kept Leary to a 42%-40% margin in the Clutha part of the electorate. Moreover, while the National-to-Labour swing in the rural parts of Taieri was about 12%, Kernaghan kept the National-to-Labour swing in the urban areas to about 5.5%. On the other hand, Leary did much better than Curran ever did on the Taieri Plains, winning the area 46%-44%. Even the extremely pro-National area of East Taieri went from 67.5%-24.2% National to 42%-37% Labour. A 24% swing.

The distinction between people who voted before election day, and people who voted on the day is also rather marked. Labour nationwide won the Advance Voting to a truly insane degree – whereas National voters waited for the day itself (Labour still won the on-the-day vote, but it was much closer). This shows up locally, with Leary cleaning up the Advance Voting in Balclutha, Milton, and even Lawrence(!). Kaitangata did not have Advance Voting, though its Advance Voters likely went to Balclutha. On the day? Kernaghan won three out of four Balclutha booths, both Milton booths, and a more than two-to-one margin in Lawrence. Kaitangata – which remember is a stalwart Labour town – voted for Leary, of course, but it was not a staggering victory. ACT managed a truly terrifying 8.5% in the town, on the day.

(So yes. Kaitangata – a lonely little speck of Red, which has never had a Labour MP before – finally had a win. My two great-grandfathers on my mother’s side would be extremely happy. And yet it did so by voting ACT in a higher percentage than the country as a whole).

I’ll call it there for now, but it’s the ACT vote that gives me chills, since ACT is now the closest New Zealand has to Trumpists. These are the people who hate climate change measures, water regulations, and gun control, while also being opposed to the Government’s COVID policies. Once upon a time, ACT was the party of Auckland and Wellington business elites… now they are the party of rural culture war. Behind the Red Tide of New Zealand election night 2020, there was a Yellow Tide finding its way into some very… non-traditional places.

Addendum: As a further point of interest, National won the candidate vote in the part of Clutha that did not end up in Taieri – 63.7% to 27.5%. So while three quarters of Clutha went into Taieri, it was the moderate light-blue section. The dark-blue section of the district stayed in Southland (and actually voted more National than Southland did). However, that portion of the district only has 2000 people in it.

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