It is widely regarded that National won the 2008 election easily, and Labour never had a chance of retaining power – after all, National won 58 seats against Labour’s 43 seats. Jack Vowles, however, makes a strong argument that this misses the point somewhat and that ‘A bloc-based analysis of the election’ suggests a closer competition took place. When you add up the actual percentages of votes for the separate Labour and National blocs of parties, ‘the separation between the two blocs was a much smaller three points’ (p.368), and it was the minor parties’ fortunes that played a strong role in the outcome:
New Zealand First failed to win an electorate seat… Coupled with ACT’s success in the Epsom electorate and its gaining four further list seats, these peculiarities of the electoral system made the gap in parliamentary seats between the two blocs much larger than its foundations in the party votes. On the other hand, though, the shift in support from a Labour-led to National-led bloc was a real and significant one of 8 per cent. But New Zealand remained a little more evenly divided in its political preferences than is immediately apparent from a casual glance at the results of the election (p.368).
Nonetheless, when the centrist NZ First party is left out this bloc-based equation, it can clearly be seen that the ‘combined left vote’ (of Labour, Alliance, Progressive, and the Greens) declined significantly. Here’s their aggregated vote for the period, 1999-2008:
Locating the parties on the left and right spectrum
Jack Vowles is involved in the long-running New Zealand Election Survey (NZES), which comprehensively survey voters during each general election, providing a rich data set for political scientists to analyse politics in this country.
Vowles reports on how New Zealand voters placed the political parties on a left-right scale (where 0=left and 10=right):
This looks broadly right, albeit probably exaggerates the dispersal of parties along the political spectrum (as such an exercise is prone to do). The results compare to my own ‘expert survey’ of New Zealand academics for the 2008 election, which used a similar methodology:
For more on this, see the blog post entitled, The changing nature of ideological conflict in New Zealand electoral politics (1996-2008): The rush to the centre & the rise of post-materialist issues
In 2008, NZES respondents were also asked to locate themselves on the 0-10, left-right spectrum, with the mean average for 2008 being 5.6. This, Vowles says, is ‘slightly to the right’ of the average position of ‘5.2 in 2002, and 5.35 in 2005’ (p.370).
When did 2008 voters make up their minds?
Vowles is also interested in when voters make up their minds about who to vote for. This is indeed a key question – after all, does the election campaign actually make much difference? Do TV ads, leaders debates really have a significant impact on voters decisions? Or have most voters already made up their minds? Vowles says:
NZES data reporting at the time of the voting decision also fills out the picture of a majority of voters having made up their minds before the campaign: 61 per cent. Of these, two-thirds had made up their mind before 2008. This is the highest proportion of pre-campaign voting choice since 1990, when Labour was last removed from office… Campaign choices were only 33 per cent, the lowest since the 1987 election (p.372).
Trust in the major parties in 2008
The NZES asked voters whether the various political parties were trustworthy. In terms of National, 43% of people were not sure whether to trust the party, followed by 28% that thought National was indeed trustworthy, and 24% said the party was untrustworthy. For Labour, 38% thought the party was trustworthy, followed by equal proportions of the population – 29% - that thought Labour was either ‘Trustworthy’ or ‘Not sure’.
This was ‘particularly relevant because Labour claimed its record in office demonstrated it could be trusted’ (p.373). Vowles says the stats show ‘how and why Labour’s “trust me” pitch failed. Labour was indeed the most trusted of the two main parties, but also the most distrusted’ – 29% compared to National’s proportion of 24% (p.373). Vowles says that it’s ‘somewhat surprising’ that ‘after nine years of Labour-led government’ ‘nearly a third of voters were not sure’ if the party could be trusted.
How do political scientists explain why National won the election? At the core of Vowles’ chapter is the use of two theoretical models for interpreting elections: positional and valence.
The first – the positional model – is about issues, policy, and how parties position themselves vis-à-vis voters:
It is a spatial model, usually assuming a one-dimensional policy space from left to right on which voters place themselves in terms of their different opinions and preferences, most around the centre (Downs 1957). Sometimes a political party comes into office with a clear set of promises that constitute clear differences from the government it has replaced. In so doing, it has set out a “position” that receives support from the average or median voter on a particular important dimension (p.365).
Vowles makes the important point that, increasingly the left-right spectrum is complemented by a socially liberal-conservative one:
The debate about positional politics is slightly complicated by the existence of at least two policy dimensions in New Zealand politics: liberalism versus social conservatism, as discussed above, and economic or Downsian “left versus right”. However, while it is often useful to differentiate between the two dimensions, they correlate to some extent (p.366).
This also corresponds with my lengthy analysis in the blog post: The changing nature of ideological conflict in New Zealand electoral politics (1996-2008): The rush to the centre & the rise of post-materialist issues
The second model is the valence one:
Here voters appraise political parties in terms of widely shared social concerns and values, rather than opposed policy platforms. Effective, efficient and competent government and a strong economy are the main criteria for voters’ judgments of this nature. This is a recent interpretation of British politics in the context of the decline in voting by class, weaker party loyalties, and the convergence of party promises… On the surface, similar New Zealand trends might support a valence interpretation of the 2008 election. However, the two models are not mutually exclusive’ (p.365).
With these two important models in mind, Vowles is keen to work out why Labour lost. He asks, ‘what aspect of the government made voters most likely to desert it? Had it run out of competence [ie valence model], or popular ideas [ie positional model], or both?’ Vowles seems to be saying that the positional interpretation has dominated the analysis of Labour’s 2008 loss:
Conservative commentators have advanced what amounts to a negative positional interpretation. Labour was out of touch with “mainstream” public opinion – median voters, in other words. Labour represented a “bossy”, “liberal urban elite” too soft on crime and too tolerant of the concerns of small minorities. It had lost touch with “ordinary working people”.
Vowles details how the election was actually fought on valence-type issues, by showing how both major parties both de-emphasised their policies and moderated their extremes:
almost regardless of their politics, commentators saw National as either failing to emphasise its economic policies, thus “tip-toeing to victory”, or otherwise not providing sufficient detail to move them beyond symbolism and rhetoric, and thus lacking the “sharp edges” of National’s policies at the previous election… This “careful centrist positioning” easily attracted enough “soft votes” to win…. Differences existed, but they were certainly not as great as in the immediate past, as Labour had moved slightly towards National too. National leader, John Key, declared “I believe in the welfare state” and promised to index benefits to the cost of living. He also ruled out asset sales, thus neutralizing opposition to privatization of state activities. As the New Zealand Herald commentator, Brian Rudman, declared, “this wasn’t an election won over matters of policy” (Rudman 2008). This is obviously a full-blown valence politics interpretation (pp.366-67).
This policy convergence meant, it seems, that the 2008 election became more of a valence one, whereby the different parties seek to convince voters that although their policies might not be totally different from their opponents, their particular version of the policy is a superior one, and the party is more effective at governing, with a better leadership. Vowles says that by shifting into the centre of the political spectrum, National and Labour ‘opened up more room for valence judgments’, and this was a fight that suited National: ‘Among the valence issues, the most important was probably leadership, and John Key was a new, fresh-faced National party leader with little or no baggage from the past and a successful business career behind him’ (p.367). Furthermore:
National presented itself as a party of the centre, making little challenge to Labour’s major policy achievements. It won with a combination of positive and negative valence strategies: the negative, by casting the declining competence of Labour’s final years in government in the worst possible light; and by selecting a new leader who could promise a better future (p.378).
Looking at the NZES data on election issues and how they corresponded to voter choices, Vowles has some interesting findings that back up his emphasis on the 2008 election being fought on valence instead of positional issues. He finds, most significantly, ‘there was little or no positive positional advantage for National, except perhaps on law and order. National’s pull was predominantly on valence issues’ (p.379). It was only really National’s policy on sentencing that really won it considerable votes:
On sentencing, though, there was an even stronger skew towards National. Hard-line law and order policies seem to have provided the strongest substantive National party appeal, despite Labour’s considerable concessions to that point of view since 1999 (p.378).
Other core policies that might have been thought to influence the vote were not significant. For example, ‘Preferences for reducing taxes also had strong appeal, but little or no effect on choice of party preferred to govern’ (p.378). Likewise, Vowles found ‘58 per cent agreeing that differences in income in New Zealand are too large, and only 12 per cent disagreeing’, yet this didn’t appear to correspond in votes for Labour. People who favoured greater economic equality, or who would not benefit from tax cuts, were very favourable towards National.
Even the issue of disciplining children – a major debate in 2008 – which might be thought to have helped lose the election for Labour, actually had little effect. Vowles gives some analysis to the question of how the issue of ‘discipling children’ might have affected support for National over Labour, concluding that the ‘upshot is that while most New Zealanders tend to take a conservative position on parental discipline, it does not shape their choice of government very much, if at all’ (p.374).
Like other academics and political commentators, Vowles cites Labour’s Electoral Finance Act as contributing to the Government’s defeat:
Finally, Labour’s legislation to restrict “third-party” funding of election campaigns was strongly opposed throughout the country, and badly mismanaged, giving an impression of heavy-handedness, arrogance and incompetence. These perceptions were made worse by accusations that the New Zealand First party leader, Winston Peters, had accepted an illegal donation to his party. Labour continued to rely on his support to pass legislation, and he retained his ministerial position. As it turned out, there were no grounds for prosecution, but many suggested Peters’s diminished reputation had inflicted indirect damage to Labour (p.367).
Overall, this is an important chapter to read. Highly recommended.
New Zealand Government and Politics (fifth edition, 2010) is edited by Associate Professor Raymond Miller and published by Oxford University Press. For more information, see the Oxford University Press webpage for the book.
The table of contents is below:
1.1 Why Study Politics? Chris Eichbaum
Part A Political Culture
2.1 Political Culture: Patterns and Issues Fiona Barker
2.2 New Zealand Since the WarJim McAloon
2.3 National Identity in a Global Political Economy Jacqui True and Charlie Gao
2.4 National Identity in a Diverse Society Peter Skilling
2.5 Politics of Biculturalism Katherine Smits
2.6 Ideology, Populism and Pragmatism Pat Moloney
Part B Constitutional Debate
3.1 Towards a Written Constitution? Bruce V. Harris
3.2 The Treaty and the Constitution Janine Hayward
3.3 An Independent Judiciary? Andrew P. Stockley
3.4 Monarchy or Republic? Noel Cox and Raymond Miller
3.5 Reforming Parliament Margaret Wilson
3.6 Role of an MP Grant Gillon and Raymond Miller
3.7 Future of the MMP Electoral System Raymond Miller and Pierce Lane
Part C Executive Debate
4.1 Cabinet Elizabeth McLeay
4.2 Dynamics of Government Formation Jonathan Boston
4.3 Leadership and the Prime Minister Margaret Hayward
4.4 Bureaucrats, Advisers and Consultants Richard Shaw
4.5 Conscience Voting: Who Decides? David Lindsey
4.6 Strengthening Local Government Christine Cheyne
Part D Voters and Elections
5.1 How Voters Decide Jeffrey A. Karp
5.2 Parties, Voters and the Media Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd
5.3 Digital Campaigning Edwin de Ronde
5.4 Debating Election Finance Reform Andrew Geddis
5.5 The General Election of 2008 Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
5.6 The 2008 Election: The Issues Alexander C. Tan
5.7 The 2008 Election: Why National Won Jack Vowles
Part E Media Debate
6.1 Democracy, the Public and the Media Geoff Kemp
6.2 Who Owns the Media? Gavin Ellis
6.3 Political Mediators Joe Atkinson
6.4 New Media and Democracy Luke Goode
6.5 Student Media Matt Mollgaard
Part F Democratic Debate
7.1 Changing Party System Raymond Miller
7.2 Labour Peter Aimer
7.3 National Colin James
7.4 Greens John Wilson
7.5 Māori Party Kaapua Smith
7.6 Minor Parties Bryce Edwards
8.1 Māori Participation Ann Sullivan
8.2 Asian Participation Shee-Jeong Park
8.3 Youth Participation Jennifer Curtin
8.4 Decision-making by Referendum John Parkinson
8.5 Social Movements and Activism Anita Lacey
8.6 Interest Groups Tim Tenbensel
8.7 Participating in Agenda Setting Michael Mintrom and Phillipa Norman