Reflecting on Elections Past



There are a number of past elections that can give the left in New Zealand guidance and hope. Two major points though. Major parties require leaders who can bridge the political divide through strength of personality, vision of what it means to lead a good life in a sustainable way, and adherence to policy that supports such a vision.

Possibly the only person who can do this for the left is David Shearer, now a more plausible leader than in 2012. He received a stunning personal vote in Mt Albert; a vote that suggests an appeal that goes well beyond party politics. I sense that Shearer is not dogmatic on economic issues, meaning that he might be open to a new approach.

Before taking kneejerk responses to change leaders, however, parties should always take time to reflect on the issues, as my review below of prescient past elections shows.



1969 should have been a dead cert election for Labour. Indeed Labour would have won despite itself had the election been in 1968, a year that the economy tanked.

1969 was our first election for which TV coverage was pivotal. And it was the first time the ‘sixties’ generation had an impact on politics. While Kim Dotcom was the joker in the pack this year, in 1969 it was Tim Shadbolt and the PYM (Progressive Youth Movement). This youth activism in New Zealand followed the huge influence of the protest movements in the USA and France in 1968.

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The television and radio coverage showed a continuous barrage of shouting at National Party leaders, especially Keith Holyoake, Jack Marshall, and Rob Muldoon. The tactic backfired. National gained a fourth term, unprecedented since Seddon and Massey. W(h)anganui, a previously solid Labour electorate, even went National. (We remind ourselves that, before MMP, the electorate vote, while notionally a personal vote, was actually a party vote).

Norman Kirk, taking Labour in 1969 to its second defeat under his watch, would have been dog-tucker in today’s media environment. Yet three years later, in 1972, and in improved economic times, and despite the rise of the Values (Green) Party potentially splitting the anti-National vote, Labour won a historic victory with its two-time-loser leader.

By 1972 the sixties generation was now looked upon with substantial affection. The 1972 election result was inspired in large part by four issues of central importance to youth: the proposal to raise Lake Manapouri, compulsory military training (potentially conscription with the Vietnam War still on), French nuclear testing, and playing rugby with South Africa (especially the proposed 1973 Springbok tour). Although I was too young to vote, my birthday came up on the 1972 ballot for compulsory military training. The Organisation to Halt Military Service (OHMS) was actively planning a programme of civil disobedience. The new Labour government pre-empted this by abolishing the draft.

(In that election, former classmate who was 21 [just old enough to vote] changed his family name to Mouse and stood in Palmerston North as leader of the Mad Hatters Tea Party. A year previously, another former schoolmate, Bob Burgess, a few years older than me, took the long-haired look to the All Blacks, playing brilliantly against the British Lions and really helping to soften anti-hippy sentiment.)

Interestingly, the fourth term 1969-72 National government took a socially progressive turn, with the introduction of equal pay for women, with the McCarthy Commission reforms to the social welfare system, and with the introduction of free wage bargaining, the holy grail of the trade union movement at that time. (Indeed we should not write-off the presently elected government as also having the potential to become a progressive influence.)

My gut feeling is that either 2017 or 2020 will be an election in which a wave of issues will bring about substantial political change, regardless of the policies the 2014-17 National Government might implement. It is now that the left must conduct an open contest of ideas, so that it can robustly develop policy options that actually have a chance of improving the lives of the dispossessed, and in ways that unite rather than divide New Zealanders. The left must learn to shrug off ridicule from the mainstream media; and must learn to wear low poll ratings (in non-election years) that result from unreflective journalism. (A good example of this media cynicism was when the Green Party was contemplating a monetary policy of ‘quantitative easing’.) When it comes to new ideas, the mainstream media – especially TV and commercial radio – is the most conservative force in our society.



In 1931, the Great Depression had been in full force for a year. Economic growth was substantially negative that year, deflation was ravaging our businesses big-time, and mother Britain had been through its biggest financial crisis ever, or at least since 1720. Labour, which had supported Ward’s minority United government in 1929, offered plenty of socialist rhetoric, but (like Philip Snowden in the UK) was fiscally conservative. A counterfactual 1931-34 Labour government would most likely have pursued balanced budgets and retrenchment with at least as much enthusiasm as the hapless George Forbes. In 1931, Labour was trounced in an election that it should have won.

Labour’s somewhat Marxian leader Harry Holland was not deposed after that election. Fortuitously for the ‘progressive side of politics’ however, in 1933 Holland caught a chill (on Taupiri mountain) and died. Labour’s new leadership, especially the older Mickey Savage and the younger Jack Lee, caught the mood by promoting ‘new left’ equitarian values and monetary reform. Labour won in 1935 with the help of a split in the conservative vote, and triumphantly without help in 1938.

It was easy for Labour because Reform Finance Minister Gordon Coates paved the way by establishing his ‘brains trust’ – Bill Sutch, Horace Belshaw, and RM (Dick) Campbell – in 1933. After the 1935 election, the ideas necessary for recovery had already been subject to robust examination, and able to be implemented by a government subject to fewer political constraints than the Forbes-Coates (United-Reform) coalition government.

Who is the next Savage, and the next Lee? Could Bill English do a Coates this year, and establish a brains trust that includes genuine new thinking? While we have nothing like the distress today that there was in 1933, it is clear that the global economy in the 2010s faces huge risks. 2008 was a mere warning shot.



In 1987, the ruling Labour Party crowded out the National Opposition, appealing to voters on the right-wing side of politics. New National leader Jim Bolger was not crucified, however, for his party’s disappointing showing. (National had been ahead in the polls four months before the 1987 election.) Like Norman Kirk after 1969, Bolger won handsomely in the election after defeat. In 1985 National had dabbled with Jim McLay; but McLay never had the provincial centrist appeal that Bolger had. Was McLay a National equivalent of David Cunliffe? Was Bolger a National equivalent of Shearer?

The important lesson here is that – after 1931, after 1969, after 1987 – there were historically significant changes of government next time around. In each case there were new (but poorly understood) circumstances already under-way that eventually created a substantial change in public mood.

Yet after 1972 and 1990, the new governments revealed substantial shortcomings. Labour was unceremoniously dumped in 1975; and in 1993 the left scored what was probably its highest ever vote. It is not enough for the left to win in 2017 or 2020 by waiting for events to make a change of government inevitable, and then implementing inappropriate pet policies. New governments need new ideas that can be embraced by middle New Zealand. Roger Douglas’ 1974 superannuation pot of gold was not one of those new ideas. Nor was the 1991 Employment Contracts Act.


Australia 1993

Another election to reflect on is the Australian election of March 1993. Paul Keating led the Australian Labor Party to victory, extending the life of the ALP government to 13 years. The Australian Liberal Party had dumped John Howard as leader in 1989, replacing him with the bohemian Andrew Peacock and then the neoliberal economist John Hewson. Neither of these men had Howard’s ability to appeal to the median voter.

When the Australian Liberals finally reinstated the right man for that job, the Liberals were able to establish a four-term government.



My final reflection relates to 2008 and the Maori Party. The left in New Zealand, to its shame, has little understood the necessity of the Maori Party joining the Key government. There were two reasons.

First, the Maori Party had to participate in government if it was to get Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed legislation repealed. That was the Maori Party’s founding purpose.

Second, the National Party has in its bottom drawer a policy to abolish the Maori electorates. This is the political glue that requires the Maori Party to participate in any National-led government. (This does not preclude the Maori Party from participating in a Labour-led government; though David Cunliffe’s unnuanced rejection of the Maori Party may have severely harmed future Maori-Labour cooperation.)

So, when Te Ururoa Flavell becomes Minister of Maori Affairs this year, please don’t write this off as sell-out. Flavell makes his party relevant by participating in government. The Maori Party, having survived the retirement of its founding leaders, now has at least a possibility of long-term relevance in New Zealand politics. By gaining a list MP (Marama Fox), voters of all ethnicities can now see that a party vote for the Maori Party is not a wasted vote. The Maori Party has the opportunity in 2017 to rejuvenate itself through its party list, and to become a constructive part of every government for the next few decades.



Learn from history. While history never repeats, those politicians (and political hopefuls) willing to take a nuanced perspective can take heart.

The left needs a set of policies that address the actual issues that ordinary people face in their daily lives. It needs leaders who are brave enough to run the gauntlet of mainstream media cynicism on these matters of policy. It need leaders who are trustworthy rather than tricky.  It needs leaders who do not come into politics already knowing all the answers. It needs leaders who can restore possession and dignity to the dispossessed, and can represent the public interest.


  1. Yeah well, read that nice history recap-always interesting to see earlier examples and how they applied solutions …..BUT !!!

    You missed out one all pervasive ,permeating factor that DID not exist in any of those earlier examples.

    The rise of Mont Pelerin society free market neo liberalism. Which occurred around 1948-9 ?

    And that changes everything. If Savage had to deal with an economic ideology such as that during his reforming….he wouldn’t have been anywhere as effective.

    And while historic cases of former leaders and party’s are good to learn from….I would suggest a whirlwind tour of successful ,modern day examples of the Keynesian social democratic model far more appropriate to the current large socio economic gaps we now have in New Zealand’s population.

    I should also think that a study on the Scandinavian countries and various South American countries would be a good place to start.

    Then,….apply principles learnt from those examples to here perhaps.

    • Edit : And by that I mean also that at that time they were under the failed influence of American style Laizze Fair ….a form of neo liberalism that in fact precipitated the Great Depression.

    • Agreed WK …. A very nice little academic analysis, but one that doesn’t really take account of societal change or neo-liberal ideology – which (as intended) has spread its tentacles far wider than simply matters economic and political.

      Actually now I think about it – even Lange began to realise it when he called for a cup of tea (“My Life”) and all that where he likened the Douglas/Prebble/etc converts to their beliefs being almost religious rather than ideological.

  2. An interesting analysis Keith.

    Our political scene over the years has been a bit of a bumpy ride, on a choppy sea. Politics has always been a bit of hit and miss. It’s a fickle game, sometimes with fickle players, playing to a fickle public.

    Your final statement sums the situation up very well.

  3. The meek and the mindless . The graceless and the classless . The moronic , rugby playing , reality home show watching masses , in their synthetic hoards stumping into the abattoirs of their own design . The Gidday Maters , the Howzit’ers , The Sweet As’ers , The Aw Maters . Those who wear singlets with the name of their favourite car-porn car star’s name across and jandles out to dinner at Mackers , the plump and lusty breeders , who sweat out Serco’s prisoners in the just-add-water bedrooms of their debt tombs of tomorrow .

    This government ? This is Mobocracy’s historic legacy , the history that the blind minded and blank eyed will try to fathom in time to come as their offspring will be rounded up and sterilised because this social experiment was too good to be true for the Ruling Class . The Power Elite . Here’s some advice . Buy Serco shares .
    Yes , this is history in the making alright . And what a future awaits ? I’m too old to fight now . I’m going to pull up a chair , pour a ‘ bevvie ‘ and watch the Greatest Reality Show on Earth while hoping to God I don’t live too long .
    “ The Dumb Fucks In Paradise ” .
    Here’s a clip from the script .
    ” Haw , haw haw ! See that one ? Thought he was castrated didn’t he ! Haw , haw , haw ! Now they got them another kid on the way ! Haw , haw , haw ! ! Pass me another Brawndo Cheraline , This’s gettin ’ good ? I bet he leaves her with the kid so she goes out hooking to pay the power bill . Haw , haw , haw ! “

    But the poverty stricken morons who just voted in their abusers are only one part of the history of tomorrow .

    Lets not forget the Power Elite at the top of the dung heap .
    The Sharp Faces . With expensive , neat , meat eating teeth and their glittering , brittle eyes always looking for that sweet deal . The unattended best mates boy/girl friend , the deal that’ll mean good coin and so what if that money is someone else’s . They build banks on the debt they force you into then steal your life away . They manage the media who in turn manage your mind because like it or not , you have no mind of your own . They slither into your heart like a liver fluke . They burrow then build their nests and as they pay others to lick their balls for them , you and I die of third world mental illnesses , suicides and physical diseases .
    No , it’s not a pretty picture I paint for those of you with cowardice for blood and can’t see the horror for a veil of fluffy kittens and roses . All you smoochums with your widdle ideals of decencies and understandings and Universal love-lies told to you by yourself and now , after all your avoidance and denial you’ll be finding out that you fucked this up for you and me . Aw , how caring and sharing of you ? You want to get offended by me ? You want to see offensive ? Go and live in a Corporate American built Third World and see a starving women watch her baby die in her arms on the side of the road . A great life if you’re a fly , is that not right Fly , as you circle the Elite at the top of the dung heap ?

    You liars , thieves and cowards ? And you ‘ protest non voters ‘ or lazy swine by another name . You’ve just sold our souls to the Devil .

    Happy History in the Making Day . The Death of our Democracy .

    • Very poetic, Countryboy, but neither exactly inspirational nor exactly accurate. Most people will never vote in anger at the suffering outside their experience. They may yet vote for something appealing. Lose your fury as soon as you can and try to walk a mile in the shoes of the typical voter.
      We are still enjoying the sugar rush of powdered milk returns and earthquake insurance payment. The government were lucky with the tactic of borrow and hope. But it is their only plan. It doesn’t always work and it only works for so long. In the meanwhile calm heads are needed to minimize the damage or even to find something useful from the experience.
      If an accord on the left can be forged; if we can start to search for the truly positive agenda, rather than mere lip-service and if we can try to learn something from this election with humility and wisdom, we might actually get somewhere – and sooner than you may imagine.
      This isn’t the time for bloodletting or recrimination, even less a time for excoriating the right.
      Think: who will get elected first: Cassandra or Pollyanna?

    • Very good description of the demographic of kiwis living in Nz . I think this is definitely the reason we have the government voted in on Saturday night…

  4. In our distress, one wonders how many will read this posting to the end. It adds a little perspective to the pain of having to listen to the chortling of the Hooray Harries. We can rake over the bones of our humiliation. That may take months or years, then we can go down the same old track of trying to find rightings of perceived wrongs. This will maybe help a little at the next election, but may still not be enough in my estimation.

    We know that there is a stereotype of the right: that they are all out for number one, have no empathy, and lack scruples or morality – and imagination in the case of the current administration.

    But there is a stereotype of the left also. We are seen as glorying in negativity; looking forward to caning the wicked more than curing the injustice. The problem is that there is a measure of truth in both these stereotypes, or they would not have been coined.

    There is another approach, which I would like to suggest. Most people, whether they voted for a reform programme or not, do actually want to live in a country that is better, fairer, cleaner and where more people get paid more and live in greater dignity than is currently the case. They may not know how to get to the goal, however I believe there can be broad agreement on many of the targets. So let’s start by identifying those targets. In a public way: a convention or major event studded with international speakers to establish that it is the current government which is out of step. It may sometimes be about Mom and apple pie, but, perhaps not always. However if there really is broad accord, then that is a clear step forward. It will establish that we can find common cause with the bulk of the population.

    To start with, though our leaders must acknowledge that they got it badly wrong, both individually and collectively. All our leaders. That they have let the country down by not putting up a better fight, and that the pursuit of a better country is bigger than individual ambition. And mean it.

    Second, the hand has to go out from the biggest party, Labour, to the Greens. The other way around will provoke resentment. It is a hang together or hang separately situation. This will only work if we all sing from the same song-sheet. There are battles to win way before the next general election, so there isn’t a moment to lose.

    Third, the policies of the election must be publicly jettisoned. Make it clear that no one loves 67 retirement or extra taxes. They are merely possible roads to a better tomorrow. There may be other, better roads. We have the luxury of time to investigate other paths. We don’t need policy now. It is the government elect which has to find the way to the improved country which we will identify. In this we can set the agenda.

    In the analysis if the National government’s performance we have one other magic tool. Their own pronouncements. They have identified ambitious targets for much of the economy. We need to remind them of their dreams and require them to achieve them. Other areas can furnish targets, too: international tables, agreed targets…. this is relatively straightforward.

    The last element I will mention is perhaps among the most important. Labour and the Greens, as well as other reform minded group: Maori, Mana, perhaps New Zealand First, must co-ordinate their efforts. It is appropriate that at General Elections the parties should stand apart. After all their optics are somewhat different. However, the next goal will be local elections. Co-ordination, as well as a policy of getting closer to all areas of the electorate will give good results. A positive approach will give the best chance of a positive outcome. And that is something we all need.

  5. I don’t find very much in this analysis to take heart from. Sure the left will win again, but will it be a progressive left? The UK hasn’t elected a left wing government since 1976 (I do not count Tony Blair’s so called ‘third way’ which relied on a pact with Rupert Murdoch. Blair and Brown deregulated financial markets with more enthusiasm than Thatcher – and then Blair became a US Neocon. Power has become so concentrated after 30 years of market fundamentalism that with each passing year our democratic deficit grows bigger. The relevance of the Maori Party in government is that they are also a neoliberal party. The right saw Maoridom as a perfect vehicle for neoliberalising all of NZ. Settlement claims were made on the basis that Iwi became corporatised. Tino rangatiratanga is achieved through privately run prisons and charter schools. The Maori Party also believe in and support trickle down economics. My greatest hope for the next parliament is that Flavel takes up Hone’s feed the kids bill. Beyond that my fears are legion. As for your preference for David Shearer. I mean, I like the man but he’s useless in Parliament.
    Having said all of that, I believe that “we are on the cusp of something great,” and that is the fact that neoliberalism is starting to creak under the weight of its own contradictions. The stagnation of real wages is going to start to mean less cafe visits for us ‘middle classes’. The ‘middle class’ is actually starting to shrink in many places. There is too little spending money coming from the bottom and a rise in minimum wage is needed to boost the economy. We are living longer and our old age is getting costlier due to all of the amazing interventions that now exist. As a result we must all be compelled to save and the retirement age must be increased but this must account for the lower Maori life expectancy. Cunliffe and Parker have the policies we need. God help us if Labour now tack to the right. The media may be less vindictive but the result will be further decay.

    • No one is suggesting a right turn, Raychch. Rather I suggest we attack the political question from the other end. Where do you want to get to? The “way” progressive or whatever is only the route, not the destination. You have to chose your destination before deciding the most efficient and effective route. If you start from this end, you may find you will be able to take more voters with you. This isn’t a third way, it is a tactic to win and not a way to feel good about yourself when you lose.
      If you can’t feel good about the prospect of working more closely with others with similar, but different analyses of the national political needs, then you would never be happy in government anyway.
      Cross-benches, anyone?

      • I didn’t say anybody was suggesting a tack to the right I said, god help us if that happens – as it happened in the UK after 4 successive election losses. The neoliberals in the Labour Party see Cunliffe as a move to the left and this is going to be an ongoing fight within the Labour Party. In addition to that misreading of my analysis your comment makes very little sense.

        If the neoliberals end up dominating the Labour Party they will be my opponents, just as National already are, and democracy will have to be made from the bottom up some how. Democratic accountability will never be achieved by voting for a party that wants to sign the TPP and continue to support the US corporate hegemony and all that entails. Such a Labour Party will do next to nothing about the swelling ranks who are living lives in absolute economic poverty. The best thing that New Labour did in the UK was to inadvertently show people that the centre left centre right neoliberal hegemony only increases the fundamental problems we face. The result is that they’ve almost killed off the first past the post system because people want a new politics – even though they may not be able to articulate one.

        • I don’t disagree with much of what you say. My point is not that the choice is a neo-liberal agenda vs a move to the left. Rather that an analysis of desired outcomes should dictate tactics. Expressing where we want to get to, then showing how it can be achieved is more likely to bear fruit than identifying wrongs and attempting to right them by legislation of one sort or another.

          If our goal is a country where everyone can get access to cheap or free medicine, then obviously, signing away our rights to supply generic drug under TPP would be highly prejudicial. If we want a world where we can all live, and live in dignity, that implies another set of policies. By couching the discussion in these terms, your policies will be seen to be beneficial and logical. Alternatively, if you merely identify disadvantaged people and offer to remedy their situation by requiring the government and the rest of us to pay more, many people will be turned off, even if it is the only solution. The better way in that context, then is to couch the problem in a positive light. Strategy, not changed goals.
          My thesis is that there is more accord available at some level than the recent election results show. This, in my view, is because the voters were never allowed to imagine that they were voting for something. Only against.

  6. Labour needs to figure out who they are, what they stand for and then stick together. Did National ever – even in the middle of dirty politics, etc – actually go against the party line? We’re had ‘Mr Cunliffe, if you loose this election will you resign?’ and ‘Mr Shearer, would you take on the leadership?’ for the last month.
    What does the caucus think? Isn’t that part of their problems – since 1984, the caucus have appeared to ‘be above’ their party membership. Labour needs to take it to their branches – like they used to – or just go the way of the Liberal Party.

  7. We need to take back our share of so called public media.

    It incenses me when my Son rings from Germany asking why we don’t have a public broadcasting station anymore?

    This right wing extremists have taken our share of public NZNZ and RNZ and turned into their own propaganda machine and we all know this.

    We all pay taxes for the benefit of us all not just right wingers.

    The fortunes of the centre left will never recover while they and we have no voice for the most of us that didn’t vote for NatZ as they only got 29% of the eligible vote and now own the public media, is this democracy?

    I don’t see this as right, so we must find ways to force Our rights to have our own public media as the right wingers have and that is the way forward for us all.

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