If voters can see the commonality between Labour and the Greens, why can't political analysts?

Most political analysis in New Zealand seems trapped in the two-party winner-takes-all world, or perhaps they are numerically challenged by the number which comes after two. Whichever, to discuss the National-Labour divide without mentioning the Greens is almost pointless. (I’ll come to NZ First shortly.)

Sure, Labour with 24.7 percent has had its lowest share of the vote since 1922 (a three-way WTA election, by the way). But the Labour-Green vote in 2014 was 34.7 percent. In contrast National got only 20.9 percent in 2002 – 28.1 percent with its wing party ACT (and it almost won the following election). Whatever, this was the worst voter share for the Left since MMP began in 1996.

But am I justified in adding together the Labour and Greens votes? Danyl McLaughlan, one of our shrewdest political observers, said the two parties hate one another. Maybe, but that is about the party organisations. My experience was that many voters dithered to the last moment over to which to give their list vote; there were even couples who amiably decided that they would split their vote to resolve the problem.

There is some empirical evidence that Labour and Green voters are not that different. Not – yet – for this election, but from the New Zealand Election Study for the 2011 one. Its results are reported in the book The New Electoral Politics in New Zealand published earlier in the year.

So what difference does it find between Labour and Green voters? Very little. The book’s editor Jack Vowles used some serious statistical procedures on the post-election survey of voters. On eight attitudinal dimensions there was very little difference between Greens voters and Labour voters if you contrasted them with National voters. The biggest was Labour was more pro-welfare and equality but the Green’s difference from National was far bigger, as it was on every other dimension. (Alas, there was no environmental sustainability dimension in the survey.)

On the left-right spectrum they looked much the same. There were other smaller differences, smaller than the margin of statistical error. Generally they were in the direction one might expect – so Labour’s voters looked a little poorer (Green voters' partners had less difficulty finding a job than Labour’s; they looked more like National's here). But the big difference is between National voters and Labour-Green voters, and not between the latter two.

(I also looked at where New Zealand First voters fitted in. To simplify, they sit between National and Labour-Green.)

There was one difference worth pondering. On the liberal-authoritarian spectrum, Labour voters were more likely to be authoritarian, Greens liberal. Interestingly, National voters look more like Green voters when it comes to this. The NZ First voter patterns were more like Labour’s with a preponderance of them at the authoritarian end of the scale. Unfortunately, the questions were not detailed enough to explore this difference in detail.

What does this mean? I don't want to deny that Labour voters are different from Green voters – but they are not that different. And apparently they are not as different as the party leaderships think they are.

The New Zealand Election Study results have two major implications. The first is that if they want to discuss the future of the Labour Party, political analysts are going to have to learn to count to at least three. The second is that the leadership of both parties are going to have to find some sort of accommodation – the sort that many of their voters have already found.

Comments (10)

by Alan Johnstone on September 22, 2014
Alan Johnstone

"There is some empirical evidence that Labour and Green voters are not that different"

If you mean 2014 voters, then yes you could well be correct.

However If you mean 2002 / 2005 Labour voters that no longer support the party and whom they need to convince in order to return to power, then No I think you are wrong. These people are very suspicious of "green" politics and see them as anti growth and anti jobs. Creating clear water between themselves and the Greens is important.


by tussock on September 22, 2014

That's survivor bias, Alan, and well spotted.


Just because the people who voted Labour are just as happy with the Greens, doesn't mean you saw a fair representation of all the people who might vote Labour. Ditto, it seems, for all the potential Green voters, only less so. That's likely true for two (or three) elections in a row now, and may well explain the trends.


Though I see it more as the distaste for liberalism than the old myths about economics. Surely someone noticed the Greens were the only party to fully cost their policies?

by Alan Johnstone on September 22, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Actually I don't think anyone did notice the Greens costings.

The Greens got no media airtime and tanked on campus; they are the biggest victims of dirrty politics and Herr Dotcom. There's a core 10% now, but it's going nowhere now.

Frankly I think their offer is stale, floating voters have tuned out. Russell comes as ok, Metiria less so. They appeal mostly to middle class urban voters. I'd suggest they activly repeal potential labour voters in the suburbs, the vote rich C1 & C2 groupings.

The problem with electing leaders in their late 30s like the Greens did is that it's hard to move them on.

by Tim Watkin on September 22, 2014
Tim Watkin

Brian, I'd say yeeeeesssss. But only to a point. You seem to be saying that if you add Labour and the Greens together 'the left' didn't do as badly as some say if they look only at Labour's historically low vote.

Except that the Greens vote also fell from the previous election and even together the two parties were both down on what were already relatively low (certainly not winning) numbers last time. Yes, together they made 34 percent, but Labour was on almost that a year ago all by itself. And still worried enough to be changing its leader.

The Labour vote was down in nearly every demographic.

The Greens were openly aiming for 15 percent and missed by almost a third. 'The left' was down.

There's not a lot of consolation there for supporters of those parties. And the focus on Labour now is because a) it's long been the other party of government and so is worthy of attention and b) looks set for another leadership race, whereas the Greens are stable in their top two.

And while I don't dispute Vowles' analysis, I also hear the talk in the centre of NZ that the Greens are still too anti-development and anti-jobs. Key uses them as a bogeyman for a reason – his polls and focus groups tell him to.

So there are 5-10 percent of voters that need to be won by those parties if 'the left' are to win and I suspect lying behind the analysis is the assumption that Labour is in the best position to win most of that in the centre.

by Richard on September 23, 2014


I also hear the talk in the centre of NZ that the Greens are still too anti-development and anti-jobs.

Perhaps, however for better or worse, there is nothing much that can be done about that. Green Party policy is largely a transparent product of what Green party members want, it isn't easily amenable to change in an attempt to appease mainstream voters.

If Green Party policy changed significantly, then Green party members (and voters) would simply form and vote for a different "Green" party. This is the advantage (and disadvantage) of a party that really is about pushing specific policies rather than merely "attracting" voters.

Labour just has to cope with the fact that there is a significant minority Green party and really needed to demonstrate to the mainstream electorate how Labour and Greens (and perhaps Mana) could work together. Mainstream National voters are not disturbed by the crazy that is Act, because it is (apparently) clear that despite allying with Act, National can be trusted to not implement any really crazy Act policies. Now, this might be a bit of an illusion, but it's an illusion that the mainstream electorate is prepared to believe.

Labour's big failure was not being able to convincingly articulate to mainstream voters how a Labour led government would actually work. Labour needed to show how they could work with the Greens, but still not allow anything too crazy to be implemented. To attract mainstream voters Labour needed to look like competent leaders.



by tussock on September 23, 2014

Except that the Greens vote also fell from the previous election

Uh, Greens always gain a lot on specials and there's a whole bunch of specials this time, including a big vote from Oz that always serves them well. Despite the higher turnout, the massive National turnout, the terrible day for the rest of the left, the Greens may yet have held their own, from a record high.

It's not a bad outcome for the Greens, except that they didn't get the massive gain they earned last time all over again. They just kept it. That's always dissapointing as a greeny, but rationally it's fantasitic and a great springboard for next time (now they've got a full policy set underway and can start fine-tuning and beating the drums).

by Brian Easton on September 23, 2014
Brian Easton

Some of the interesting comment misses my central point. Comparing only Labour to National belongs to an era that was abolished by MMP. Yet political commentators in the newspapers I read do it. Most of the comments here are decades ahead of them; for they recognise there is a problem of how are we to think about elections in which there are four largish parties (as well as some rats and mice).

It was not my intention to downgrade the failure of the votes of Labour and Greens together. Insofar as there is a point here, it is that the Left may well think that the recent election was bad news for them, but it was not as big a disaster as the shallower commentators are portraying. A more careful evaluation will lead to strategies which could make 2017 less disastrous. Or is that deeper thinking to be done only by the Right?

Just to emphasise a point to Alan Johnstone: I was reporting 2011 election similarities. Perhaps this year’s will be different. We shall have to wait and see. But certainly the NZ Electoral Studies project provides valuable insights we often overlook.

by Tim Watkin on September 23, 2014
Tim Watkin

Brian, you're right that comparing only Labour to National misses an important point. The vote on the Left is split; that's been a weakness but some day is likely to become a strength. National is doing all the heavy lifting on the right and can do that given Key's resilient popularity. When that's gone (or damaged) and National has a more typical one against two fight, the presence of the Greens could make a huge difference to the longevity of a centre-left government.

And that's before even considering NZF – which may step into the hole for National, but could equally help support a long-term Labour-led government.

by Steve F on September 25, 2014
Steve F

Some truisms on the Greens from Bob Jones...... Always entertaining and mostly on the button


Against expectations the Greens lost a seat. Their main problem is that today everyone’s green which leads them to adopt unacceptable extremes.

More important, green issues should be neither left nor right yet they unabashedly align themselves with the left. They’re on a hiding to nothing with this association, going down when Labour sink and being swept aside when Labour are in the ascendancy.

Listening to Metiria Turei explaining on National Radio a few days before the election, how she and Russel Norman would become joint deputy Prime Minister after the election, left me incredulous. She’s a jolly and likeable lady but desperately out of touch.

Greenness is a pan-political issue.  To try and make it the righteous preserve of the left is always going to limit the party to 10-12% of the general vote.

The idea for the Greens to reach out to National for a grande coalition was quickly rubbished – showing that once again, the Greens are a communist/Marxist party with a light green patina that only gets paraded around election time.

by Brian Easton on September 25, 2014
Brian Easton

Tim. You meant to add there is the potential for the left split vote to one day become a strength. Sometimes it takes decades. I'd add that to succeed they are going to have to think carefully about voting behaviour under multi-party MMP and not two-party WTA. 

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