New Zealand’s Striking Electoral Shift to the Right

The conservative National Party of New Zealand scored a major victory in the country’s October 2023 general election, with the governing Labour Party suffering a historic defeat. As described by The Guardian, “New Zealand voters have delivered a forceful rejection of the Labour government as a surge in support for the National party delivered what analysts described as a ‘bloodbath, for the government and a new right-leaning era for politics in the country.” But just three years earlier, it was Labour in the victory circle, winning the 2020 election so overwhelmingly that it was able to govern without a coalition partner. But in the intervening period, the country’s mood soured over concerns about high taxes, increasing crime, the rising cost of living (especially of housing), and the government’s highly restrictive COVID policies.

Before delving into geographical analysis of New Zealand’s recent elections, it is necessary to explain the complexities of the county’s “mixed-member proportional” parliamentary system. New Zealand is divided into 65 general “electorates” (geographical voting constituencies) and then redivided into seven special electorates for Māori voters. Each electorate selects one person to serve as its MP (Member of Parliament) in the unicameral parliament, officially known as the New Zealand House of Representatives. But Kiwi voters not only choose an individual to represent their electorate, but also vote a second time for a political party, each of which maintains a list of potential MPs. Parties whose total vote in that contest exceeds a certain threshold (usually five percent) send an additional 48* MPs into the House of Representatives, their numbers proportional to their share of the vote. Minor parties can thus gain parliamentary representation either by having enough voters concentrated in one or more electorate to defeat candidates from the other parties, or by having enough support nationwide to crack the five-percent threshold.

Labour’s overwhelming triumph in the 2020 election is strikingly evident on the map of the “party list vote,” which is on the left side of the paired Wikipedia maps posted below. Astoundingly, the Labour-list came in first place in all but one general electorate. Its rival center-right National Party took only a single district, located in a suburban area of Auckland. The direct electorate results were much more balanced, with individual candidates in the National Party taking seats in both non-metropolitan areas and in the more affluent parts of Auckland (see the map on the right). Three other parties – the Green Party, the Maori Party, and the “classical liberal” ACT Party – also sent MPs to parliament in 2020, based both on their national party-list vote and on their victories in individual electorates. All in all, 2020 was a banner year for New Zealand’s political left, with Labour, the Green Party, and the Maori party (Te Pāti Māori) together holding 78 parliamentary seats, as opposed to 42 held by the center-right National and ACT parties.

On October 14, 2023, however, New Zealand experienced a stunning electoral reversal. As the party-list vote maps for the two elections show, New Zealand went from almost entirely red (Labour) to almost entirely blue (National Party). Even on the more diverse Wikipedia map of the direct electorate results, there is little red to be seen in the country as a whole. But such mapping is misleading; as the inset maps show, the Labour and Green parties won quite a few urban seats, particularly in the country’s second and third largest cities, Christchurch and Wellington. But overall, the 2023 election was a clear triumph for conservatives. It was also a rout for Labour, which went from 62 to 34 seats in the House of Representatives. But the other left-leaning parties, the Greens and the Māori Party, gained seats. So too did the classically liberal ACT Party. The socially conservative nationalist-populist New Zealand First Party also did relatively well, returning to the House of Representatives after an absence of several years.

As conventional electoral maps give undue prominence to sparsely inhabited areas, and therefore tend to visually exaggerate the vote-share of conservative parties, electoral cartographers have devised more representative maps. The usual strategy is to expand more densely populated areas in proportion to their populations. For New Zealand’s 2023 election, The Spinoff devised such a map, converting the country into hexagons of roughly equal population. It also grouped the parties into two categories, one left-leaning and the other right-leaning. As can be seen in the resulting map, in the 2023 election New Zealand was still a mostly blue (conservative-voting) country, although not to the extent seen in conventional maps. This Spinoff map also clearly shows the Māori population, with its special electorates, as strongly supporting the political left.

The Spinoff has drafted another map that divides New Zealand’s electoral hexagons into three categories, one composed of large cities (Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch), one of medium-sized cities, and one of rural areas. Such mapping helps us see the role of population density in voting behavior. To clarify this situation, I have “whited-out” non-rural areas on one iteration of this map, everything but large cities on another, and everything but medium-sized cities on a third. As can be seen, rural electorates supported the conservative National Party, although some by relatively thin margins. Medium-sized cities delivered more mixed results, with some strongly favoring the National Party and others supporting Labour. Dunedin, in southeastern South Island, in particular leans left. Such affiliation is strongest in North Dunedin; as “Just Dave” comments in a Quora query about New Zealand’s most left-wing cities:

The cities in which the most left-wing party that actually gets elected to Parliament (the Greens) receives the largest proportion of the popular vote in the are central Wellington, central Auckland and north Dunedin. All three areas have a comparatively young, wealthy and educated population. North Dunedin is primarily home to university students and university staff, for example.

Surprisingly, New Zealand’s large cities also appear as politically mixed on The Spinoff’s 2023 electoral map. To be sure, Wellington – the capital – is mostly red (Labour) and green (Green), but it is a different story in Christchurch and especially Auckland. Auckland, by far the largest metropolitan area in the country, deserves a more detailed analysis – which it will receive in the next GeoCurrents post.

*This number can be slightly higher due to extenuating circumstances.