The results of the local government elections will be very difficult to process for the political left. Overall, it was a disaster for progressives, and a boon for conservatives. The left has to deal with a sea change of gigantic proportions, in which favoured liberal candidates – such as Efeso Collins running for the Auckland mayoralty – have been trounced. The other Jacinda Ardern-endorsed mayoral candidate – MP Paul Eagle in Wellington, was humiliated with his fourth place.
The extent of the wipe-out for Labour, Greens, and leftwing candidates was like a mirror image of the wipe-out of the National Party just two years ago at the 2020 general election. Throughout the country, progressives have done very poorly, with very few exceptions.
The capital was the only place where Labour and the Greens could celebrate, with Tory Whanau being elected mayor. But in her case, she says she won by positioning herself as the "change candidate" that conservatives could vote for.
Change is in the air
It was the "change candidates" who prospered throughout the country, with a rising mood of anger and disenchantment with the status quo. And so outgoing Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins, who ran as a Green Party candidate, complained he was a victim of an anti-Establishment mood that was sweeping the country. The so-called "woke mayor" lost in a landslide against him.
Candidates on the hustings report that they have witnessed rising anger towards the Labour Government amongst voters they've talked to. There is no doubt that the cost of living crisis, the housing crisis, the climate crisis and so on are making people dissatisfied with a government that seems to be focused on all the wrong things.
According to Stuff political editor Luke Malpass there is a new "grumpiness" out there "in which a 'I'll turn the joint around' sort of message resonates well." He argues that Whanau's "platform for change" was the same successful campaign message employed by Phil Mauger and Wayne Brown who won the Christchurch and Auckland mayoralties, respectively.
He says the Government needs to take notice: "this result will have Labour a bit worried. The sweep up and down the country suggest – at least to a degree – that there are voters who are ready to change and keen to lean into candidates with claimed competence or who stick to the knitting."
The New Zealand Herald's editorial yesterday had a similar reading of the situation: "Change is in the air the length of the country as several key local government elections opted for new brooms. The Government will be looking at the results with pursed lips as some Labour-anointed or linked mayoral candidates were shunned for those leaning right."
The Herald explained that the left's Auckland mayoralty candidate, Efeso Collins, suffered due to his "status quo" reputation during a change election. And with the centre-right Brown being elected, "It's a first for the supercity after having leftist leaders since its inception almost 12 years ago."
Collins in Auckland and Eagle in Wellington may even have suffered from Ardern's endorsements of them. They both had much worse results than forecast. Herald political journalist Thomas Coughlan therefore pronounced that Ardern's stardust has settled and her "once unshakable star power" has finally been repudiated. He says Labour received a bloody nose in the campaign.
Message to Labour over reform programme
Coughlan explains that the Government now faces some tough decisions: "Labour now has to ponder whether it wants to go to war with a nation of right-wing mayors over Three Waters and RMA reform, or whether to drop or modify the policies (modification being far more likely) in recognition of the fact the electorate in many, perhaps most, parts of the country appears to have rejected them".
Similarly, according to rightwing commentator David Farrar, "There were many reasons why so many left candidates lost – Three Waters, anti-car transport priorities, rates affordability etc. If Labour is sensible they will listen to the voters and ditch their Three Waters legislation. But if they refuse to listen, well they may get the same shock next year."
Local Government NZ has also put out a similar analysis about the Labour Government's reform programme being unpopular and an explanation for the degree of change in the election results. LGNZ's president Stuart Crosby explains the reaction to Labour's programme: "That is quite upsetting to a large number of people. That's not to be unexpected there is that shift in political thinking… And it does lay a platform for the general election coming through this time next year as well."
It's the Government's flagship policy of Three Waters reform that seems to be the most contentious with the public, and the leading candidate for Labour to axe if it wants to avoid a red-green bloodbath next year. As Nelson's new mayor, ex-National MP Nick Smith says, the Government would have a "death wish" if it continued with this particular policy.
Will Labour listen?
Leftwing commentator Martyn Bradbury isn't optimistic that the political left will draw any sensible lessons from the big defeats of the local elections: "The ramifications of the Left being smashed so badly should be a wake-up call for the Left but it won't." He argues that they will focus instead on the victory of Tory Whanau, which he explains by the fact that "Wellington is the wokest city in NZ".
Bradbury thinks the left will therefore double down on woke policies instead of going back to leftwing basics. He concludes: "The Left have spent far too much time talking and very little walking. Voters don't believe we have the capacity to make transformational change any longer and are drifting back to the Right."
In their upset over the big shift to the right throughout the country, many liberals are resorting to complaints about how the election was run to explain the failure of their preferred candidates. This comes across as sour grapes and an inability to face the reality of the public mood.
Nonetheless, there are some big questions about why voter turnout appears to have dropped, once again, to a record low – of about 40 per cent. In fact, once you consider that about 10 per cent of eligible voters aren't even on the electoral roll at the moment, the real turnout was actually only about 36 per cent.
This record-low turnout is a problem. As some on the left have pointed out, it means that only about 10 per cent of Auckland have voted for Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown. But it also reminds us that the left's favourite winner from the weekend, Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau only has a small fraction of support in the capital city.
So, it's true that the latest election indicates that the current Labour Government has got a popularity problem. But this election also shows that most elected local politicians also have a legitimacy problem, supported by very few voters.
• Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.