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Lessons for Labour in Lester’s defeat

Justin Lester's loss of the Wellington mayoralty does not bode well for Jacinda Ardern's political future, warns Peter Dunne.

The last few days have not been good for the Labour Party.

First, came the local body elections and the loss of the Labour Mayor and two Labour councillors in Wellington. Then, were the opinion polls showing significant drops in the level of Labour’s and the Prime Minister’s ratings.

All this was compounded by the Prime Minister’s subsequent clumsy attempt to suggest Justin Lester had been an independent Mayoral candidate, rather than the official Labour one, when all his branding and publicity since his original election three years ago has been unashamedly Labour, and when he had been running at the head of a Labour ticket in Wellington.

And then, yet again, when Shane Jones once more breached Ministerial conduct standards by shooting a banned automatic weapon overseas, the Prime Minister timidly brushed his conduct aside and refused to even rebuke him in any way.

At the same time, it would be unwise to read too much into these events, let alone to suggest that they of themselves portend the defeat of the government at next year’s general election. They do not.

However, they do wave some mighty big warning flags in front of it, that it would be foolish to ignore.

For a start, there were strong parallels between the Mayoralty of Justin Lester and Jacinda Ardern’s Prime Ministership.

He was viewed at the time of his election three years ago as a genuine breath of air – a relaxed, caring and compassionate leader, with a clear vision for the future of his city and an air about him that he could make it happen. He slowly but steadily reshaped the form of the Mayoralty to be more citizen-friendly, and showed real, empathetic leadership in the wake of the devastating 2016 earthquake.

For most of his time as Mayor, he appeared to enjoy good public support, so much so that earlier this year it looked as though he would face no significant challengers at last week’s election.

At the same time, however, there was a gradual sense that Wellington was not perhaps doing as well as it could be.

... maybe, Wellington did not have to keep bumbling along the way it has been.

Despite the empathy, the response to the 2016 earthquake seemed slow and uncoordinated, and accompanied all the while by threats from insurance companies of significant rises in the cost of home insurance, which the Mayor was, of course, powerless to stop.

Transport – public and private – became a shambles, where, in true KiwiBuild style, the more the Mayor promised, the less he seemed able to achieve. And the incompetent way in which the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s reorganisation of the bus services played out, not to mention the bizarre nature of the Mayor’s negotiations with central government on “Let’s Get Wellington Moving”  (which were perceived to be more about protecting the image and integrity of the coalition than sorting out Wellington’s problems) compounded the sense of endless talk, but no real action. Even so, the Mayor’s position did not seem to be in jeopardy.

However, once the local body election season began, there was a gradual but perceptible change.

Looking at the two main challengers to the Mayor, people began to sense the possibility was there for change, and that, maybe, Wellington did not have to keep bumbling along the way it has been.

The Peter Jackson factor has probably been over-estimated, but his public support of Andy Foster did boost his credibility as a potential alternative. And that in turn led to people starting to see the possibility of a Foster Mayoralty, rather than being resigned, as had hitherto seemed the case, to another term of Justin Lester’s smiling warmth and empathy but otherwise general inaction.

The upshot was that people worked out that they could use the STV system, used in Wellington elections, to preference other candidates than Mayor Lester, and bring about his defeat.

Pointers for the Government

Two key points emerge from this that should be of concern to the Ardern Government.

First, voters increasingly not only expect politicians to deliver on their promises, but are becoming far less tolerant of failure to do so.

Just talking about how good things will be if given the chance no longer cuts the electoral mustard, as Justin Lester would probably tell Jacinda Ardern, if she is still talking to him.

While they like political leaders to be caring, compassionate and empathetic, they actually place a higher premium on policy achievement, and are becoming less tolerant of excuses for things taking longer than expected or promised.

It makes sense – after all, in today’s society where every other aspect of life seems to have become immediate or instant, why should politics be exempt?

For a Government like the current one, where its self-declared “Year of Delivery” is more than three quarters over with little to show for it, heading into a general election in barely a year, this should be a major concern. Just talking about how good things will be if given the chance no longer cuts the electoral mustard, as Justin Lester would probably tell Jacinda Ardern, if she is still talking to him.

Second, the electoral tide can turn very quickly if voters sense there is a credible alternative available to them.

Right now, New Zealand voters as a whole are probably no different from Wellington voters in the lead-up to last week’s election.

They feel that things are not going as well as they could be, especially in critical areas like housing or transport, and although they quite like the international kudos the Prime Minister is building up for herself, they would prefer a little more attention to be paid to making progress at home.

They have probably felt resigned to, rather than excited by, the prospect of another term for this government, because they have not really felt confident there was an alternative. What the weekend’s opinion polls show, however, is that for the first time since the last election there is the real prospect the Government could change next year.

While there is still a long way to go, and it would be far too soon to start drawing absolute conclusions, those polls change the game to this extent. They make the National Party seem a credible alternative, which means people will now start to look at what it does far more thoroughly and seriously. And that throws down the gauntlet to National.

Having finally grabbed the public’s attention, National now needs to start producing the policies to address the public’s concerns, as well as acting more like a government in waiting, than the Opposition.

Just as the above two factors helped determine the Wellington mayoral election result, they will likely be influential in the deciding the outcome of next year’s general election. The party that understands and responds to them best will be the party to lead the next government.         

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