Don’t Take Me Home, Country Roads: Labour’s 2020 West Coast Problem

I have previously noted that the Otago-Southland region was a bit of a hole in the New Zealand Labour Party’s 2020 success – a hole that has gone completely unnoticed, because the media and political class only see the topline result.

But it wasn’t the biggest hole, dear reader. Not by a long chalk. Otago-Southland was merely a relative under-performance, even if it carries a faint aroma of 1987 to it. For those unversed in New Zealand political history, 1987 ought to serve as a warning of incoming problems… we shall see what transpires in 2023.

So Otago-Southland Labour did not fall off a cliff. Rather, for a true electoral disaster for the Red Team, one must head over to the West Coast.

Recall that West Coast-Tasman is the swathe of the country that resides on the western side of the Southern Alps. Where your humble blogger was actually born. Considering that I was born in Greymouth, and live in Dunedin, why are the areas closest to my heart the problematic ones?

But I digress…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is west-coast-map.jpg

As you can see, the electorate is a combination of two regions – Tasman in the North, and the West Coast in the… West. Hence the name of the electorate.

In order to demonstrate that something has gone rather wrong, a bit of historical perspective is in order. Back under the old First Past the Post electoral system, West Coast and Tasman were actually two different electorates. Consider the Labour/National tendencies of the two for the 1972-1993 elections, relative to the rest of the country:

(A National +5 seat has a 5% bigger margin for National over Labour, compared to the rest of the country. If New Zealand as a whole has Labour leading by 1%, a National +5 seat would have National leading by 4%. Self-explanatory?).

  • 1972: West Coast: Labour +21, Tasman: Labour +5
  • 1975: West Coast: Labour +21, Tasman: Labour +11
  • 1978: West Coast: Labour +29, Tasman: Labour +9
  • 1981: West Coast: Labour +23, Tasman: Labour +10
  • 1984: West Coast: Labour +15, Tasman: Labour +2
  • 1987: West Coast: Labour +4, Tasman: Labour +1
  • 1990: West Coast: National +1, Tasman: Labour +2
  • 1993: West Coast: Labour +16, Tasman: National +18

From this, you can see that West Coast – home to mining and forestry – was far more Labour-supporting than the rest of New Zealand. You can also see that it reacted very, very badly to the Free-Market Revolution, punishing both Labour in 1987 and 1990, and National in 1993. You can also definitely see the trouble brewing in 1987 (or even 1984), before the seat actually flipped Blue in 1990. In fact, since 1990 was a colossal National landslide nationwide, the fact that the Coast was Bluer than New Zealand that year was nigh-on apocalyptic.

Tasman, by contrast, was a much lighter shade of Red. Sure, it gave a boost to Labour in 1975, 1978, and 1981, when the Tasman MP was Labour Leader, but it was never as rock-solid as the West Coast. But Tasman was also not as outraged by the Fourth Labour Government… and in 1993, it fell in love with Nick Smith, the MP it had elected in 1990, during the National landslide. From 1996, Smith went over to Nelson, where he remained MP until he was defeated in 2020.

In 1993, New Zealand decided to adopt proportional representation, with elections under the new system being held from 1996 onwards. West Coast and Tasman were merged into a single electorate, West Coast-Tasman.

Here are the Labour/National results out of West Coast-Tasman, again, relative to the rest of New Zealand. It’s the relativity that is important for our purposes – the seat did actually flip to National at the candidate level in 2008 before flipping back to Labour in 2011, but 2008 wasn’t as bad versus the rest of the country as 2005:

  • 1996: Candidate Vote: Labour +31, Party Vote: Labour +10
  • 1999: Candidate Vote: Labour +14, Party Vote: National +9
  • 2002: Candidate Vote: Labour +12, Party Vote: National +8
  • 2005: Candidate Vote: Labour +7, Party Vote: National +4
  • 2008: Candidate Vote: Labour +9, Party Vote: Labour +0
  • 2011: Candidate Vote: Labour +20, Party Vote: Labour +1
  • 2014: Candidate Vote: Labour +23, Party Vote: Labour +1
  • 2017: Candidate Vote: Labour +21, Party Vote: Labour +5
  • 2020: Candidate Vote: Labour +1, Party Vote: National +3

From which one can note three things:

(1) Labour’s 1999 promise to end native logging really, really hurt it in West Coast-Tasman, and it took a long time to recover. The relative candidate vote only really bounced back after the 2008 departure of Helen Clark as Labour Leader (hint – calling voters “feral inbreds” is not a recipe for success). Labour’s relative party vote spent two decades gradually recovering from its 1999 nadir, to the point where West Coast-Tasman spent the 2010s looking like a red-tinted bellwether. 2017 was the best Labour performance in the electorate since 1996… before things dropped off a cliff in 2020.

(2) The New Zealand media, as ever, are incredibly lazy in just looking at National’s 2005-2017 raw party vote victories in West Coast-Tasman. Yes, National won the party vote in those years… but it was because they were winning the nationwide party vote by comfortable margins. Throughout the John Key era, West Coast-Tasman was (slightly) more Labour than New Zealand as a whole. Not that anyone, including the ostensible New Zealand Left, actually seemed to notice. One imagines that most Aucklanders and Wellingtonians would be surprised at how Red Westport actually is (hint – think Dunedin-level Red). Someone, please tell Labour’s Green Thatcherites to stop bashing their own voters.

(3) The 1984 Free-Market Reforms hurt Labour, and the 1999 end of native logging hurt Labour. In both cases, there was a quite clear cause and effect – the West Coast was objecting to Labour Government policies. But what is the cause of that ugly drop – in party vote and more especially candidate vote – between 2017 and 2020? That, dear reader, is why I am writing this blog post. Something has caused a terrible result for Labour in West Coast-Tasman, and because it was a nationwide Labour Landslide, no-one is talking about it. This is also why I am so focused on relative margins, rather than raw margins – it allows one to detect problems under the hood, so to speak.

In fact, the above numbers understate the situation.

For analysis purposes, let us break up West Coast-Tasman into its two constituent parts: West Coast (Buller, Grey, and Westland Districts), and Tasman (everywhere else). This does not perfectly align with the 1972-1993 results above, due to boundary movements, but it is a reasonable enough fudge.

West Coast:

  • 2017: Candidate Vote: Labour +21, Party Vote: Labour +7
  • 2020: Candidate Vote: National +17, Party Vote: National +7

Tasman:

  • 2017: Candidate Vote: Labour +21, Party Vote: Labour +2
  • 2020: Candidate Vote: Labour +12, Party Vote: National +1

Now we’re cooking with gas. Or rather coal. Not a great night for Labour in the Tasman section, but not a disaster either. In the West Coast section? Easily the worst relative Candidate result in history, and approaching the depths of the Helen Clark-era backlash in terms of Party Vote. National won the Candidate Vote in the West Coast region outright, in what was a nationwide Labour landslide – a 9% swing to National amid a nationwide Labour swing of 10%. What saved the Labour Candidate from defeat was Tasman.

So this terrible result was really only coming out of one part of the electorate, namely the West Coast section. Considering what the West Coast is (or was), in terms of its economy… there is more than a whiff of 2017-2019 North of England about these results, if not full-on West Virginia. I have noted previously that New Zealand is structurally resistant to a Culture War Realignment, since it has not quite industrialised after the manner of other countries. New Zealand’s Labour Party gets its bedrock support from big urban centres, not heavy industry in smaller towns. But the West Coast fits the realignment profile better than anywhere else in New Zealand…so this result is particularly interesting from an international perspective.

Let us mine these results a bit deeper, by considering the three constituent local council districts of the West Coast region….

Buller (Westport):

  • 2017: Candidate Vote: Labour +36, Party Vote: Labour +20
  • 2020: Candidate Vote: Labour +2, Party Vote: Labour +6

Grey (Greymouth)

  • 2017: Candidate Vote: Labour +22, Party Vote: Labour +8
  • 2020: Candidate Vote: National +22, Party Vote: National +7

Westland (Hokitika):

  • 2017: Candidate Vote: Labour +2, Party Vote: National +12
  • 2020: Candidate Vote: National +33, Party Vote: National +24

Ouch. All three districts look bleak for Team Red – sure, Labour won the Candidate Vote in the Buller District, and still did better than the nationwide result there… but Buller is the Coast’s Labour Heartland. It’s not a red-tinted bellwether. Grey basically inverted itself, from Labour to National, so far as nationwide comparisons go, and while all three districts are bad for Labour, Grey was the closest we have to an epicentre of the disaster. And as for the most southerly district, Westland, it is now as Blue – in Party Vote terms – as the likes of Taranaki-King Country and Southland. Sure, it is the most right-wing part of the Coast – it lacks Grey and Buller’s history of coal-mining – but you are still dealing with an historically Red part of New Zealand. There is Labour tradition on the Coast, but absolutely nothing of the sort in Taranaki-King Country and Southland… so why is Westland voting this way?. But since Labour (narrowly) won the 2020 party vote in Westland, no-one in the media sees the disaster in these numbers. Ugh.

There are really only two consoling factors for Labour here:

(1) The West Coast is declining in population importance, vis-a-vis the rest of West Coast-Tasman, and the electorate will eventually start gobbling up more and more of the city of Nelson. Thus a Labour decline on the Coast might be diluted via the new areas.

(2) In contrast to West Virginia, New Zealand’s West Coast does not cleanly realign. It jumps around politically, lashing out at both big parties, and basically seems to exist in a political reality quite different to the rest of New Zealand. It has already rebelled against Labour twice in the past thirty-odd years, before 2020 came along. As such, 2020 might be a freak event, with 2023 bringing something more positive.

So yeah. The big black hole inside a nationwide Labour landslide. Not pretty for Team Red, not at all. A sensible political party might ask itself what it had done to deserve this disaster… or whether the effects of USA and UK Culture War have reached our shores too. We shall see what Labour does.

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