Have we just witnessed the rising red tide of the left, or a no-change election result?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

(The more things change, the more they are the same). That nicely sums up the results of this year's local government elections. On the surface there might appear to have been some significant shifts, with new mayors and councils elected. And many have talked about a shift to the left, especially with Labour Party mayors easily winning Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. But such shifts might be somewhat illusionary, and more than anything, the election results signal "business as usual".

A rising red tide?

It's easy to see some sort of shift to the left throughout the country when you look at the results, and I was quoted by RNZ saying "The country's looking a bit redder today in terms of political colours - candidates that are a bit more left-leaning" - see Laura Bootham's Local elections: 'The country's looking a bit redder'. I explained the success of the left with reference to some current policy issues: "The social and economic issues that were being debated in national and local politics - such as childhood poverty and homelessness - are beneficial to left wing candidates and parties".

The left has also been quick to celebrate. Greg Presland writing on The Standard says "throughout the country Labour Mayors have been elected or returned to power. With Goff in Auckland, Justin Lester in Wellington, Dalziel in Christchurch with the backing of a solid left team, Chadwick in Rotorua, and Hamish MacDouall in Whanganui local government is looking decidedly red" - see: Local Government results good for Labour and terrible for National. He also details how National's proxy ticket, "Auckland Future team failed to fire spectacularly."


Labour's local body successes will be highly motivating for the party according to Tim Watkin: "Labour will look further back, to 1992 when the Alliance did so well in local elections and then turned that into a strong showing at the general election. While there's no locked in correlation between local and national politics, parties can use the local to leverage momentum nationally, motivate their activists and bind the party. While the turn-out was low in Auckland, the result there showed Labour still has a decent ground game and has some smart political brains behind the scenes who know what it takes to win in our biggest city, if the party high-ups will listen to them. And perhaps just as importantly, we saw National lose" - see: Lessons from the weekend of politics.

Watkin says further: "So the most important takeaway for Labour is National can be beaten and if they are disciplined and focus in issues the people care about, rather than their own pet projects, there are votes to be won. Andrew Little will want to ram that message home to ensure loyalty through the next year, as the party looks worryingly at his low preferred-Prime Minister ratings."

Explaining Labour's success

So why has Labour done so well - especially when they're struggling at the national level? Danyl Mclauchlan ponders this, suggesting: "Maybe the difference is that in local body almost no one votes, but the left uses their campaign machines to mobilise their voters and the right doesn't. But why don't they do that?" - see: Notes on the local body elections.

But in the comments section of Mclauchlan's blog post, Andrew Geddis puts forward a more interesting hypothesis: "I wonder if 'local politics' is seen by voters as different to 'national politics', in that what they want from their councils, etc differs from what they want from central government. So - and again, just spitballing here - it may be that central government is expected to deliver things like security and strength that fit into the narrative of right-of-centre parties. In contrast, local government is seen to be about services and community, which left-of-centre candidates have an easier time talking about. If that is so, then it isn't surprising that a given voter might tick the ballot one way in national elections, and another seemingly inconsistent way in local ones."

The National Party is playing down Labour's successes, with Steven Joyce saying on RNZ that little has really changed: "There were three centre-left mayors in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch before the weekend, and there's three centre-left mayors in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch after the weekend" - see Benedict Collins' Labour 'over-egging' local elections success.

These issues are examined by Tracy Watkins in her column, Labour mayoral sweep - a red wave or business as usual?. She seems to conclude that no significant mood change has occurred, and that Labour's main wins can be explained by factors other than their party background: "Goff and Dalziel have big profiles and huge name recognition, thanks to their time on the national stage. They are known quantities to most voters. When voters are presented with a plethora of names on a ballot paper, that's half the battle won already. Andrew Little won't have that advantage heading into the 2017 election. And he 'll be up against a rival with star appeal and name recognition to burn."

But the failure of the political right is also receiving a fair bit of scrutiny. And today Richard Harman says: "For National the result is more troubling. There will now be a debate about why the centre right candidates so comprehensively lost. In short, how did the centre right blow it. And there will be a debate (again) about whether, like Labour, the party should become more involved in local body elections" - see: National's local election fail. But, Harman says that National activists "will face strong criticism from within the Caucus who believe that there is a huge difference between a national MMP campaign and local elections."

The NBR's editor Nevil Gibson also doesn't believe a sea change has occurred: "In fact, Mr Goff, who campaigned in blue rather than red, and Ms Dalziel label themselves as independents and woo voters across the spectrum. By contrast, National puts little effort into local government and right-wing candidates and political organisations seldom agree on a single ticket" - see: Labour tightens grip over major cities as divided Right fails to deliver (paywalled).

Nonetheless, Labour Party activists did something right, and the lessons of the Wellington campaign are explained in a blog post by Patrick Leyland - see: How the capital was won.

But it wasn't all just party machinery, and Dave Armstrong gives a different explanation for Justin Lester's strong victory: "Policy. He was the only one of the major candidates to strongly emphasise his support for council housing. Lester also showed a compassionate side with support for the living wage and a Wet House for alcoholics" - see: Tapping into everyday issues gets Lester over the line.

More of the same

A strong case can be made that local government results represent a relatively "no change" election. There was certainly more continuity than change in terms of councillors and mayors. Incumbents were generally re-elected, and there were no major upsets or surprises in the results. And indeed there were few major issues fought over during the campaign. The 39.5 per cent turnout rate reflects what was a fairly uninspiring election campaign in virtually every local authority in the country. It's hardly surprising that the voter turnout hit a record low in this year's elections.

Where new mayors were elected - especially in Auckland and Wellington - they largely represented a continuity with their predecessors. No one seriously thinks that Phil Goff in Auckland or Justin Lester in Wellington will take their councils in significantly different directions to that of the last two terms.

Today's Dominion Post editorial quite rightly points out that "this was broadly a cautious election where incumbents - Tim Shadbolt in Invercargill, Meng Foon in Gisborne, Dave Cull in Dunedin - were re-elected. The turnout was low, partly because of a lack of overall excitement or controversy" - see: A new mayor to battle old problems.

The Dominion Post even argues that the new Wellington mayor, Justin Lester "doesn't come to power on a wave of popular excitement." It also questions where real power lies in the council: "There is a persistent impression that the most powerful person in Wellington is the council's chief executive, Kevin Lavery. The fuss over his handling of the subsidy to Singapore Airlines reinforced that impression. Lester needs to show that he is the one in charge."

In Christchurch, the editorial of The Press also reflects on Lianne Dalziel's less than exciting win, and calls on her to display more dynamism in her second term: "We know the pragmatic, cautious Lianne Dalziel. Now she has been re-elected for her last term as Christchurch Mayor she needs to cut loose and pursue her vision for the city." Furthermore, "Dalziel and her team of councillors would do well to now harness some of the energy and challenging thinking which Minto brought to the mayoral race" - see: It's time for Dalziel to lead with flair. The editorial complains that "This local body campaign failed to really ignite anyone's imagination and voter turnout means that some ward councillors have been placed in office with barely more than 1500 votes."

It was also notable that only one Christchurch city councillor failed to be re-elected - see Tina Law's Five new Christchurch councillors join the ranks while another is ousted. And throughout the country this tended to be the trend.

In Dunedin, sitting councillors were re-elected, and Mayor Dave Cull won easily - see David Loughrey's Dave Cull wins third term as Dunedin mayor. And the Otago Daily Times editorial points out that on the council, "it is likely to be more of the same with centrist, left and green voices coalescing around Mr Cull and the council's dominant view on issues like the effects of climate change or cycleways" - see: Local democracy around Otago.

Invercargill re-elected the incumbent Tim Shadbolt yet again, with the Southland Times drawing attention to his feat: "Invercargill voters have yet again returned the remarkable Tim Shadbolt for an eighth consecutive term as their mayor. It's his ninth term if you include his initial election, before a 1995-98 ouster, his eleventh if you factor in the Waitemata years" - see: Invercargill caught in a Tim warp.

The provinces generally re-elected their mayors. There are too many to point to, but some important ones are detailed in Janine Rankin's Smith wins another term as Palmerston North mayor, Stuff's Easy wins for Hutt mayors as two Hutt City candidates face a nervous wait, Piers Fuller's Wairarapa districts play it safe with proven performers, and Jonathan Carson's Rachel Reese re-elected as Nelson mayor.

Finally for some satire about the results, see "Perfect Mike Hosking's" view of it all: Election wine: leave those grapes alone.