GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – From overcoming ‘bonkers’ to a political pickle


Labour’s landslide victory in the 2020 general election meant that it became the first majority government in Aotearoa New Zealand since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996.

If someone had said then it would not only be voted out but also thrashed in the next election, the response would have overwhelmingly been ‘bonkers’, or perhaps something more explicit.

Just as National was slaughtered in 2020, Labour was similarly so in 2023.

But it happened! ‘Bonkers’ was overcome. I’ve discussed why Labour was so strongly rejected by the electorate in an earlier Political Bytes post (22 November): Why Labour lost the 2023 election so badly.

The honeymoon that got away

A common post-election feature of incoming new governments is that both the main governing party’s vote (National  or Labour) in subsequent opinion polls exceeds the election night result.

Political honeymoons follow incoming new governments but it got away from the latest one

The same also applies to the new prime minister (Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, John Key and Jacinda Ardern all experienced this). This common feature is called a ‘political honeymoon’.

So what has been the experience of today’s main governing party (National) and the new prime minister (Christopher Luxon)?

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This is discussed in an insightful column by Dr Bryce Edwards published by the Democracy Project (19 March): Bye, bye political honeymoon.

‘A minimal amount of flux’

Edwards considers the pattern of post-election opinion polls – Talbott Mills, Curia (for the right-wing Taxpayers Union), and the Australian based Roy Morgan poll. All are reputable although the methodology of the third has limitations.

Insightful analysis by Bryce Edwards

In terms of the three coalition government parties and the three opposition parties, each of their results are roughly unchanged from election night. Edwards describes this as overall “…a minimal amount of flux…”

Further, there has been a decline in the confidence of those polled over the current direction of the country; always a political alarm bell for incumbent governments.

Given the high promotion of its ‘First 100 Day programme’ this is surprising. Essentially the support for the two main parties, National and Labour, is unchanged.

Early programme promotions of previous incoming governments led by both National and Labour parties had a much lower relative profile but still achieved noteworthy poll boosts.

A poor score

There is more to come, however. Edwards draws upon the recent survey by the IPSOS polling company as released in its ‘NZ Issues Monitor’ (February 2024): Latest IPSOS Issues Monitor.

The poll was of 1,000 New Zealanders. It asked:

Overall, how would you rate the government for its job in the last 6 months from 0 to 10, where 0 means ‘abysmal’ and 10 means ‘outstanding’?

The result was a mean average of 4.6. This is a poor score according to IPSOS. During the peak of its unpopularity (August 2023) the former Labour government scored 4.5.

What this is saying is that at a time when the government should be bathing in the glory of increased public support its score is a mere 0.1out of 10 higher than its predecessor government at the height of its unpopularity.

Edwards drills down further. In this latest survey, 37% of respondents gave the government a low score (0-3/10) which was the highest proportion since the survey began in July 2017. IPSOS calls this a “significant” increase.

On the other hand, 30% of respondents  gave the government a high score (7-10/10) and 29% a mid-score. This suggests to Edwards a “rather polarised electorate”.

Behind the poor score

What sits beyond the government’s poor overall score? This occurred during the peak of the public Treaty of Waitangi and ethnicity controversy to begin with.

Then, for example, throw into the mix:

  • the success of the tobacco industry in the repeal of the smokefree legislation;
  • the fast-track resource management bill;
  • big tax reductions for landlords (especially the wealthiest);
  • cutting school lunches; and
  • downplaying the importance of climate change, including reducing the incentive to reduce motor vehicle emissions and diminishing the importance of environmental protection in relation to business and commercial expansion.

Nasty cocktail

This is a cocktail for a growing impression of a ’nasty’ government that gets things done for the more powerful and wealthy rather than less powerful and poorer tinged with cronyism.

Prime Ministerial unpopularity

Edwards also discusses the significant decline of the incumbent prime minister’s popularity (when it should be increasing) both in terms of the ‘preferred PM result and the net favourability rating compared with his predecessor Chris Hipkins.

Christopher Luxon’s increasing unpopularity

The biggest factor in Christopher Luxon’s popularity fall was undoubtedly his un-endearing sense of entitlement to claim for an accommodation allowance whose purpose was to meet additional costs that he, in fact, was not incurring.

While his action was lawful, ethical or moral is another question. It took extensive public exposure for him to pull back from this self-inflicted blunder.

But this was not before his action was negatively contrasted with the intention to reduce school lunches targeted at areas where child hunger was evident. It continues to leave a nasty taste in the mouths of many.

Political pickle

But if the National led coalition government and its prime minister are being rated so poorly, why is Labour still lagging so far behind?

Primarily it is because it is a choice between an unpopular prime minister who is leading a government that is losing support versus a discredited Labour Party which was soundly rejected at the ballot box last October.

Oh what a political pickle!

This has created a right political pickle – an electorate unhappy with the government it elected to replace the previous government it was unhappy with. Oh joy!

Overall the Labour government performed badly. It failed to make the necessary practical measures to significantly address critical issues such as child poverty, low incomes (above the minimum wage), housing, sustainability of schools, and university funding.

It also badly mishandled ‘Three Waters’ (its essence was critical to water supply and safety), the health system, and technical education.

It was high on aspiration that was driven by social liberal technocratic elitism leading to an inevitable failure to deliver on the ground.

Social democrats afraid of social democracy

Labour describes itself as a social democrat party. Social democracy is not revolutionary (it was until World War1).

Instead it promotes economic and political democracy (socialism) through gradualism and reformism. This is in a formal democratic process and inclusive of a social liberal framework.

In this context social democracy can be transformational as witnessed by the first Labour government elected in 1935.

Being transformational includes effecting substantive changes that significantly enhance in a tangible way peoples economic. political and social wellbeing.

Labour fears social democracy

Regrettably Labour has degenerated to a social democrat party that is afraid of social democracy. It can barely see past structural centralism as the way forward. It puts form before function.

As they did after the 2020 election, most people would have thought after the 2023 election that it would be ‘bonkers’ to predict that this new government would be voted out in the next election in 2026 (and probably still do). They are probably right.

But if Labour is to find a way through the political pickle that it finds itself (and helped create) it has to abandon elitism and rediscover social democracy starting by putting function before form.

It must develop tangible and practical policies that lead to economic and social justice in peoples everyday lives.

In other words, Labour needs to overcome its fear of social democracy. That would then set the foundation for a genuine contest of values and ideas between it and the current government.



Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Political Bytes


  1. A very well thought out and written article.
    This government has shown corrupt traits.
    For Labour’s to oust National at the next election the message is clear, Hipkins must resign and a leader elected to support social democracy. If this is done, our country would be governed for all New Zealand Zealanders and not just pandered to the wealthiest. Our country would regain the respect of the world rather than slipping down the ladder of the worst places to live as it is under this government.

  2. The government has passed through legislation overnight to reverse the lowering of speed limits set by the previous government. Simeon Brown has stated he wants more 110km an hour roads. This is to get the country moving. Trouble is that the evidence shows speed kills.
    Add to that you can can go as fast as you like but you can only get to Wellington before you get stuck on our outdated ferries National will not fund.
    So now we have at least two policies National have introduced that will kill people, this and their smoking policy.

    • I thought that some of the speed limits were a bit slow but since most of the time when traveling you get stuck behind someone trying to impersonate a slow-moving roadblock it didn’t make much difference to journey times so I have learned to live with them.

  3. Ian – you know there is a thing called the Labour Party and just like ASMS its members (the thousands of them) want to have a say in the future direction of our party. I can’t believe anyone listening to Grant Robertson’s valedictory can still make comments like yours about the Labour Government. How about you join, become active, help devise future policy and elect great women and men? Elitism to me are those who sit on the sidelines and criticise.

    • Grant Robertson’s speech was indeed very impressive and, especially during the pandemic, I thought he was a very good finance person. While I rate him positively and his integrity highly, this does not detract from the line of argument in my blog which was both empirically and values based. My identification is with the wider labour movement as distinct from the Labour Party.

    • So uncle grant makes a good speech, and yes, there was some good things done by his party in government… That said, they also displayed a deplorable lack of spine when it came to real, and necessary change when they had the chance to make a real difference to wide sections of the electorate…
      They qualify as the most timid, wishy washy, and “middle management” labour party I have ever had the misfortune to witness first hand..
      Question.. Just how many labour mp’s were from the union movement? And by that, I mean actual workers, and not being their lawyer…
      I’m sure that I am not the only lifelong labour voter, and democratic socialist who reeled back in disgust at the pitiful calibre of those “labour” mp’s pretending to be a valid member of the “Labour Movement”, when my impression is that there wasn’t a single actual unionist among them…
      They behaved exactly like the mid level paper shufflers that plagued our lives with their trivial little games, and were regarded as, at best, a necessary evil, and an impediment to our getting the job done the rest of the time…
      If you are the actual fenton that was in the governing party under Clarke, then you were actually a part of the problem, and proved it after leaving parliament…
      Pretty little speech though.. Pointless as it was..

  4. Lets put it another way Ian…NZ Labour needs to finally recant Rogernomics and make a grovelling apology to the now four decade old underclass Roger’n’Ruth created in the 80s/90s with mass redundancies, little to no retraining and the creation of an NZ neo liberal state that just rolls over each election.

    “For the many not the few” as Jeremy Corbyn put it with his renationalisation programme is what will restore social democracy in Aotearoa NZ. A vital part of this will involve directly co-operating with Greens and Te Pāti Māori. Māori are one group that have birth rates at near replacement level unlike Pākehā and other tauiwi.

    • Hear hear.The Greens have to co-operate in nation building of they will be left on the sidelines getting nasty words thrown at them and they won’t like them and go off in a storm of tears, the males and females rapt together.

  5. “It also badly mishandled Three Waters…the health system and technical education” and “It can barely see past structural centralism as the way forward”
    This neatly summarizes the Adern government.
    We needed Sue Bradford style grassroots socialism to transform the lives of the poor.
    We got the jack boot of central control more akin to Soviet communism. Local democracy, local control and ownership of assets were stripped. Power was to be transferred to Central bureaucrats and Iwi elite. A further example of this was in the Act replacing the RMA The rights of local communities to run their affairs were to be superceded by Regional Planning committees (15 of them I think) and a National Maori Entity.
    In health, locally elected Health Boards gone and replaced by central bureaucratic control and a Maori Health Authority. In 3 waters local decisions ended and 3 powerful entities to replace our communal democratic rights.
    Little wonder the reaction by this current government has been so extreme

    • Peter, I gather you have seen the state of the countries water woes?
      3 waters may have been mishandled but it was the answer to water infrastructure upgrades. Now we have as you put it an extremist government that want to cut infrastructure spending and Simeon Brown when interviewed would not commit to any funding. Councils have stated that it will cost multiple billions to upgrade water infrastructure, money they simply don’t have. Most councils have increased rates of which aren’t for water infrastructure. I would suggest to you there will be a greater uprising than the histrionics by the farmers and anti Labour’s people of 3 Waters.

      • Bet they are wishing they’d listened now, instead of getting their panties in a twist about 3-Waters.
        TVNZ has actually been doing some research this week and speaking to very small councils about how they plan to tackle their water problems now that they have got their way. Guess what, they are going to pool their resources if they can.
        I don’t know if all rural areas rejected 3-Waters, maybe not, but it was obvious to anyone with half a brain that the scale of what was needed could not be paid for by small local councils.
        ‘Oh, but we aren’t going to agree with Jacinda on purpose because we are cross with her and Labour. She’s a pretty little communist!!!!’
        What a lot of petty-minded fools they look now.

        • Can’t wait to see the report Joy….If TVNZ are doing this then it will be the truth , and nothing but the truth….Accuracy is their middle name…..

        • What’s the bet Joy that a lot councils end up amalgamating and forming new water entities anyway. It will just take them even longer and ultimately cost more. It’s f’ing ridiculous.

          All these wankers that went on about democracy and then what we have ended up with is worse. Smoking legislation repealed under urgency. Where is your bullshit mandate for that.

          • Amalgamation is a fine solution to fix the water.At least it is still in the hands of locals not Wellington and local Maori who were not elected by anybody.

  6. luxon is a crime-ready loser who fell over his flat feet into the prime ministership of a dead country sinking.
    He’s really there because he’ll be expendable when the time comes.
    These, are very, very dangerous times and we must therefore be hyper vigilant against foreign ownership pitches. The trans generational traitors and sundry inbred self oilers will be planing an escape route and, if they can, they’ll be taking the rest of our money with them. Aye Boys? Ask ol’ winnie the prune? He’s familiar with the Wine Box and its contents. Nothing to see there though, aye whinnie? Move along now.
    Ian Wishart is also worth consideration. Yes. He is a God botherer and a climate change denier but hey, no one’s perfect. He’d probably had his drink spiked then he sobered up a nut job but that aside, he does raise scary valid considerations.

  7. Labour hasn’t been a social Democrat party since Roger Douglas, when they accepted neoliberal economic theory. And of course now they’re too scared to change. I can sort of see why, it’s those who make the most noise that will scream blue murder.

  8. “Labour needs to …” But given its history over the past four decades, what reason could anyone have for believing that “Labour will…”?
    Analysis is all very well, but when it comes to recommending action, analysts need to come up with options that make some kind of sense.

  9. Social democracy is the only way forward for any country. Dictatorships founder because swathes of the population realise their leader is really just making fools of them. The rest of the world considers them a joke.
    They may be backed up by force, with police and armed forces but even they, can turn.

    If you do not treat the majority of your people fairly and save the treats for only a select few, you can expect trouble.
    Fortunately in NZ we still understand this, deep down. Even David Seymour now claims the measures introduced to save money on the disability budget are mean and unfair. Why couldn’t he have had that thought last week or last year and saved many people a lot of bother. Will he insist they find their savings elsewhere??? Probably not.

    Making the lives of MOST of your people better is the thing. Not dreaming up never-ending ‘nice to have’ ideas for a few. With the Earth in the state it’s in already, to suggest we increase our problems with fast track consents to mining and general desecration of the environment seems counter-productive if you have the interests of most of the population at heart.
    We do need money, everything requires money but there are many people who make a living out of showing other people how to avoid their obligations to the state. We all have to pay our bit and contribute. We need fewer accountants and tax-avoidance advisors and more people of good will with a social conscience.
    The Earth needs nurturing, not endless exploitation. To let foreigners come here and ruin our land and our seas is extremely foolhardy. We know what foreign owned banks do. To imagine foreign mining companies would be fairer is ridiculous.
    Be satisfied with a little less so that everyone can live peacefully and at a reasonable standard.
    Being kind isn’t that stupid an idea and it’s far preferable to being greedy and mean or sneakily passing legislation under urgency without proper impact checks being done. Eventually people realise what a con you are and rebel.

    • ” Even David Seymour now claims the measures introduced to save money on the disability budget are mean and unfair. Why couldn’t he have had that thought last week or last year and saved many people a lot of bother. .. ”

      Cheers to all you’ve said Joy . But somehow I don’t think little David was moved by kindness nor the plight of anyone. He’s the man who spouts ‘we’re all the same , with the same opportunity’.

      My guess after 92% of New Zealanders rejected the stone cold, narcissistic man was that he saw that 1.1 million people in NZ had a disability ( beehive figures ).
      That’s a lot of votes.

      • Yep the fake sympathy by Seymour is put into perspective when one reads his tweet on those 117 public servants who lost their jobs, he said “good”.
        Seymour has no morals.

  10. “Regrettably Labour has degenerated to a social democrat party that is afraid of social democracy. ”

    Why did it take Edwards so long to figure out what was obvious by 1988?

  11. This is an incredibly accurate article and very insightful and instructive for future governments. If you project it onto this government, the bodings are not good. I suspected it in November last year, and everything that has happened since seems to confirm it. They didn’t really expect to win by the margin they did. Consequently, in the absence of a concerted plan, each party to the coalition has reverted to type. National panders to its backers with tax cuts paid for by the poor, NZF panders to the nutters with vileness and racism, and ACT hasn’t a clue because they’re really not a party of government, merely permanent opposition. Hence, the confusion. Fortunately, ot unfortunately, that will gradually coalesce into polls, around the time of the next election. That gives Labour a chance, if……. If they get rid of the existing encumbrances, the leader, the acceptance of monetarist policy, and the refusal to embrace their core supporters – the lowest income bracket and the beneficiaries. If they can somehow manage those three things, then meaningful change is possible. Perhaps the agenda outlined so often here might be achieved.


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