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


Pundit: 22 September, 2014


Keywords: Political Economy & History;


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.