• The Election That Left One Third of Us Behind

    No one should begrudge John Key and the National party the right to celebrate an impressive election victory. It is little consolation to those who opposed them that the win is very much a personal triumph for the Prime Minister rather than for the party and government he leads.

    As the tumult and the shouting die away, however, and there is time for more mature reflection, we can register a number of reasons as to why even the victors might feel a sense of unease about the outcome.

    The triumphalism in some parts of the media would have us believe that everybody loves John Key and that the country is united behind him. Let us simply observe, as an antidote to such an illusion, that only one in three of eligible voters actually voted National; more than 60% of us did not join the bandwagon.

    John Key himself, in his warning to his colleagues that they are not to show any arrogance, seems to understand this very well.

    It will quickly be observed that other parties, and particularly Labour, did much worse. Agreed – they certainly have their own problems, but that is not the particular point I am making.

    A democratic political process in which nearly a third do not participate is not in good health – especially in a country with a traditionally enviable record in terms of voter turnout.

    We need to know who the nearly one million eligible voters who did not vote are, and why they stayed at home on polling day. It is not good enough for the rest of us to say that it was up to them and that, if they couldn’t be bothered, they have only themselves to blame.

    We know, of course, who did make it to the polls. They identified themselves as soon as the election result became clear. They certainly included those who – against the wishes of the majority of Kiwis – bought shares in the partly privatised electricity companies and who immediately celebrated a surge in the value of their shareholdings.

    It is a reasonable assumption that it also included others who saw their other shareholdings and other financial assets elsewhere immediately rise in value after the election. And those who have seen the value of their houses go up week by week, especially in Auckland, by more than some of our fellow-citizens can earn in six months – and those with good jobs and incomes, able to afford foreign holidays and fees at private schools for their children – they will also have had good reason to get to vote in favour of continuing and extending the good times represented by the status quo.

    They all knew very clearly what they were voting for and had good reason to do so. But why did the nearly one million non-voters stay at home? Did they not have an even stronger reason to vote?

    We have a pretty good idea of who the non-voters were. They were poor, often unemployed, poorly educated, with worse health than the rest of us, often brown-skinned, living in sub-standard housing and bringing up their children in poverty.

    Did they not have everything to gain from change – a change that would not leave them languishing and invisible and falling further behind while the triumphant one in three amongst us celebrated their victory?

    Why did they not do at least something to ward off the changes promised by a re-elected National government? Are they really content with the prospect of a next three years that will see their rights at work severely curtailed, that will mean their being “moved off benefits”, that will produce further cuts in the public services on which they especially depend?

    The answer to these questions is disarmingly simple – but should nonetheless be of fundamental concern to all those who care about our country. They did not vote because they did not see the point.

    They had no confidence that the political process took any account of their interests. They had ceased to believe anything that politicians said. They felt disengaged and confused, and convinced that there was nothing they could do to improve matters.

    They are the people who are powerless and literally without hope, to whom things are done by faceless forces who have little idea of how life is for them. People who are without hope do not vote. Hopelessness has, in practical terms, disenfranchised them.

    The National party might, if they are unwise, treat this with equanimity. But the party with real questions to answer is the Labour party.

    How is it that the Labour party has failed to engage with what many would see as their natural constituency? What has led the Labour party to let down a million people who in earlier times would have looked to Labour to defend their interests?

    As the entrails of the election are picked over, these are the questions that, for their own sake – but even more for the sake of the disenfranchised and the country as a whole – Labour must now answer. Our country cannot afford to leave so many of our fellow-citizens behind.

    Bryan Gould

    24 September 2014


  1. Brendon Harre says: September 23, 2014 at 7:14 amReply

    Thanks Bryan. I hope those Labour MPs left realise that they need to work hard answering this question not engaging in useless palace politics.

  2. v.fellows says: September 23, 2014 at 10:51 amReply

    I agree with every single word. Why can we not get through to these people. Are they afraid to act? Are they so cowed by life that they are unwilling to expose themselves in any way.
    We can’t help them unless they show willing but we do need to get out and talk to them.

  3. Con says: September 23, 2014 at 7:36 pmReply

    I would argue that Labours mistake was actually concentrating on obtaining the ‘poor’ vote. And forsaking their traditionally primary target market, middle class workers.

  4. PB says: September 23, 2014 at 11:25 pmReply

    I don’t agree with the characterisation of non-voters as poor, brown, uneducated and unmotivated. I know plenty of white, middle-class, educated, motivated people who didn’t vote because they also don’t feel represented by any of the parties/don’t trust politicians/don’t believe anything will really change/any combination of the above. Not that I agree with their choice – but I have felt tempted to do the same i the last few years. I do agree however that Labour needs to take a good look at why non-voters aren’t voting. Forget worrying about the Greens on the left flank, or trying to move centre and become National Lite until they’ve researched why people aren’t voting/aren’t voting for them.

  5. HB says: September 24, 2014 at 2:06 amReply

    I agree with this, but in addition to the poor and disenfranchised who did not vote, the people i know who did not vote, were not poor or uneducated, they are simply apathetic about politics in general. They have no interest in taking initiative to look for information about which parties can represent them, they see no point in learning about it because they think politics doesn’t affect them. It seems to be an attitude of being content to let other NZers decide who will be elected and just live with the result. Yes it is a lazy attitude and I’m disgusted by it, but its out there in the millions and to reverse that, we need to be putting emphasis on the importance of participating in politics, voting and being politically educated, right from school age. People are just so distracted with their own lives that they see no point in burdening themselves with having to decipher the political garble coming from the beehive. Thats understandable but not acceptable.

  6. P.Brownrigg says: September 24, 2014 at 10:58 amReply

    I saw you on a documentary about British politics Mr Gould and I am glad when I did an internet search that you have a site where you are sharing your current thoughts and wisdom with readers. I live in Melbourne, I will send to this to people I know in the Australian Labor Party for them to read. New Zealand Labour’s defeat did not go unnoticed over here.

  7. Eamon Wright says: September 25, 2014 at 8:05 amReply

    I’d like to see Labour revitalised and its constituency base refreshed. On many previous occasions you have articulated a political economy that includes a robust, visionary, longer-term politics, one that challenges the hegemony of orthodox economics. I agree. Arguments are for the making – though often not on terms of choice: that is the nature of the beast. In any case, fair employment, health, and welfare are rights New Zealanders are entitled to enjoy, not pieces of luck debased by privilege.
    Considering your recent piece about the mind-set of right-wingers, I suspect they wouldn’t care less about the one million. But that is political space Labour should fill. Investment in the economy of the future is paramount but not just the short-term protectionism of National’s support for business and its political allies. And Labour could make the arguments.
    Far from being an election marred by one million souls suffering what many suggest was a false consciousness, I see it as a statement that a different narrative must be created. Labour needs to seek political support. It must inspire, engage with strategies of conviction, not hope: a wing and a prayer has no place in the politics of change. Essentially, there can be no room for the assumption that the one million will go to Labour, so Labour must go to them. It must have the courage to establish a new dialogue of engagement. This is about seeking input on the design of a credible future for New Zealand. This is about resonance.
    The here-today-don’t-care-for-tomorrow politics of National is a bunker mentality that serves them well. And it will continue to do so. Whingeing is a natural reaction to Saturday, scrambling to dislodge a leader is an understandable outcome…another left-right merry-go-round. Various electioneering mantras spring to mind: “only Labour can do it for you”, or “it is Labour or nothing”, or “don’t split Labour’s vote”. Labour must recognise that not only did its support crumble it had not really built support in the first place. But the election result was more than a Saturday in September. The broader picture, the bigger ideological task at hand is the creation of a political dialogue with real people about real issues and how these might be confronted and changed. It is about how their needs might be met in ways that are equal to and greater than the sum of National and co. Labour must establish social and economic dialogues across as broad a spectrum as possible. This is not about sell-out, to consider another die-hard mantra, it is about working with people and winning arguments, people whose votes must be struggled for, and won. Relying upon a ‘natural constituency’ is the lost way for sure. Actively retain old supporters but also win new ones. Political inclusivity is essential, but not the ideology of an in-club espoused by those on the right. Can Labour recognise the one million messages here?

  8. Susan Fromm says: September 26, 2014 at 2:52 amReply

    You raise an interesting point. However, it is the right and the responsibility of all New Zealanders to vote. I, as a middle socio-economic member of society, voted for National and I do not have children at a private school nor do I own a house in Auckland or have shares in any electricity company. I do however get annoyed with those you describe above, not taking the opportunity to make a change. I get annoyed at the above described people for also sitting back and saying it is “all my fault” because I am part of the “haves” (sort of) and not the “have nots”. I paid for my university education and I have worked hard for the house that I do have. So, If you do not like the circumstance you find yourself in then make a change, BUT only you can do it. Take a step out of the door and your comfort zone and do something for yourself and your community. You do not have the right to just sit and let life happen to you and blame it on me (or those like me who have taken that step…and no I didn’t get it right the first time, or even the second, and yes sometimes I feel like sitting back and saying poor old me, But I still get up every morning and go to work! (I worked and continue to do so for all that I have and I am not ashamed that I voted, I made a choice and if it turns out to be the wrong choice then so be it but I won’t be sitting on my couch saying it is someone elses’ fault or responsibility.

  9. Gillian Lander says: September 29, 2014 at 1:47 amReply

    Bryan, I totally agree. However, I would not be tooooo hard on Labour. Yes, they failed, but “the failure of democracy” has been embedded and growing in NZ now for some years – say 30 years. Ironically it began with Labour’s Rogernomics, and from that time on the natural constituency of Labour has been eroded until these people have NO HOPE. It is totally reasonable that they not vote. After all, we had just seen a Referendum on Asset sales ignored as 80 % of the population said No, and then cavalier action on spying. The non voters are the over-worked and underpaid and all those you detail, but also well-read middle classes, struggling and disenfranchised by arrogance. I remember (in a time when active in the Nats – long gone) that I heard it stated by an electorate chair, that 4% unemployment was “necessary” to keep workers “down”…. Today, I had an email about a commited NZFirst voter who did not vote, “as John Key was so far ahead in the polls, Winston had no chance”….. How’s that for understanding? And a business man too !!

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