Analysis: Numbers high but National has work to do

It may not feel like it for either of the main parties right now, but National has few laurels to rest on despite its overwhelming victory on Saturday, and neither should Labour drop into a slough of despair.

National’s election night tally of 878,288 (38.9%) of party votes dwarfed Labour’s 606,663 (26.9%), and 45 electorate seats won by the blue team, as opposed to the red team’s 17, is indeed a shellacking.

But delving closer in to the numbers reveals that while that amounts to a stunning rejection of Labour, it was not a striking endorsement of National either — National’s 878,288 party votes was lower than the 889,813 that Don Brash secured when he lost the 2005 election to Helen Clark and Labour.

John Key’s charisma eventually won the voters over, to the tune of 1 million-plus party votes in his three election wins, but it is clear that his apprentice, Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon, has not achieved Mr Key’s degree of mastery yet.

What’s more, he has allowed himself to be flanked on his right. Act New Zealand not only still holds Epsom, once Act’s as a grace and favour offering from National, but it also embarrassed the party in Tamaki and Brooke van Velden has secured a majority in Rob Muldoon’s old seat which will be hard to topple.

Act, which recorded its best election result, is now poised to enter a government with National, but that will not stop it from looking at other potential electorate conquests . . . any seat in which it snaffled more than 4000 party votes this election (and Port Waikato, where a by-election looms, was one of them) Act might regard as fair game.

Labour’s 606,663 party votes was uncomfortably in the ‘‘Cunliffe zone’’ of electoral rejection in 2014, and it, too, has to look to its flank to see where its votes were whittled away.

In the aforementioned 2014 election the Green party won 165,718 votes. It actually got 3000 fewer than that in 2020, but rebounded astonishingly well this year with 242,845 votes on election night — and that will get close to 300,000 once the half million special votes are counted.

The Greens gave their natural partner a blood nose by winning Wellington Central, a kick in the slats by wining Rongotai, and then taunted the fallen warrior by retaining Auckland Central in which Labour’s candidate finished an ignominious third.

But it also showed Labour the way forward. Canny hyper local campaigning and a ruthless exploitation of a rival’s weakness propelled the Greens into their best finish ever.

The sorely diminished Labour caucus will need to learn the lessons of opposition politics quickly because, despite their seemingly solid position, National is vulnerable.

It and Act combine to make up 61 seats, although specials and the by-election mean that number will probably not remain constant. It is a bare majority and, as Labour knows all too well, it only takes a Gaurav Sharma or a Meka Whaitiri to upset the apple cart.

It needs its leader, whoever it may be and it may well still be Mr Hipkins, to be as laser-locked and focused on chipping away at the government as Mr Luxon himself was. Labour only needs to look across the room to recognise that even an impregnable-looking government can be toppled.

National’s romp means it has a new, inexperienced and ambitious caucus and Mr Luxon will need to retain a firm grip on it. He has said that ministers will be given performance indicators and that he expects them to be met, but government is not as predictable or rigidly enforceable as the business world.

He will need a plan B, and Mr Key’s genius was to have a plan B in place even before he needed it: consider his agreements with the Maori Party and the memorandum of understanding with the Greens. It would be no surprise if Mr Luxon negotiates similar arrangements this time, certainly with New Zealand First and maybe even with the Greens.

NZ First had an exceptional election. The ODT cartoon post election in 2020 was of leader Winston Peters riding into the sunset . . . well, he has ridden right back into the sunrise and brought eight MPs with him.

Its challenge is two-fold. For now, whether it is a risk to, or there will be a reward for, backing the National/Act government, and for the future, whether this might just have been Mr Peters’ last rodeo . . . and arguably his finest political achievement.

Its presence, as well as strong showings by the Greens, Act and Te Pati Maori, give the 54th Parliament a real MMP feel, and so it should — 769,490 New Zealanders voted for parties other than the big two, a figure which, if it were one combined party, would have polled second-highest.

New Zealanders shopped around in 2023, and the slackening of traditional tribal politics will only increase calls for the lowering of the MMP threshold, to achieve a genuinely broad spectrum house of representatives. . Political editor