With the resignation of National Party MP Jonathan Coleman triggering a by-election in the electorate of Northcote, I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to delve into the numbers. The objective is to try and understand a bit more about how Northcote has voted since its creation in 1996, and see whether there is anything from its history that could help determine what might happen this time around.
Northcote is generally considered to be one of New Zealand's three bellweather seat - the other two being Hamilton East and Hamilton West. As you can see from the above chart, that's generally true for Northcote other than 2005, where it voted by 2 percentage points more for National than it did for Labour in its party votes.
While National won Northcote on its creation in 1996, Labour took it in 1999 and held it in 2002. What was very interesting about 1999 was that the Alliance's Grant Gillon won 20.51% of the vote, and combined with votes for candidates from the other minor parties, had more votes than either National Ian Revell or Labour's Ann Hartley could manage. Since that high water mark in 1999 for the minor parties in Northcote, National and Labour have gobbled up the lion's share of the vote.
National took the seat again under resigning MP Jonathan Coleman and turned it into a National stronghold by taking the seat with outright majorities since 2008. At the high point Coleman's lead over the Labour candidates was 29 percentage points in 2011, though in 2017 that had been reduced to 17 percentage points.
Since 2005 on the party vote front, National has consistently over performed in Northcote relative to its performance across the rest of the country. Across 2008-2014 Northcote delivered the majority of its party votes for National. Unlike the candidate vote, on the party vote front the high point for minor parties in Northcote, much as it was the for the country more broadly, the 2002 election. National's recovery in 2005 was the first major hit to minor parties in Northcote, followed by Labour's recovery in 2017.
Interestingly, in Northcote in 2002 minor parties received a larger share of the party vote than either National (who hit their lowest ever result) or even Labour, a feat they repeated in 2014 at least in beating Labour. It's a powerful illustration of how when major parties fall on hard times their supporters flock to minor parties instead in the presumed hope that their particular interests will be better represented in opposition.
When broken down by party over the period, it's interesting to see how National's success saw it cannibalise support for New Zealand First and ACT in Northcote, while Labour's fall from its 2005 high and subsequent rise in 2017 saw the Greens benefit, and to some extent NZ First recover, until 2017 hit them both.
Taking a similar look at the candidate voting illustrates how much of a two horse race Northcote has been since 2002. Whatever Grant Gillon was doing in Northcote, he was doing it very well, because since then nobody has been able to crack double figures in challenging the National/Labour duopoly.
This leaves us with the question - what does this all mean for the Northcote by-election? I think this means that Labour is right in the game and has every chance to win Northcote off National. When Labour is performing strongly in the party vote stakes they can, and they do win Northcote.
How have I reached this conclusion? In Northcote National outperforms its New Zealand-wide party vote result by an average of 3.78 percentage points. On the flip side, Labour in Northcote underperforms by an average of -2.93 percentage points. Minor parties also underperform by an overage of 0.84 percentage points.
With that in mind, and using the latest 1News Colmar Brunton poll from February 2018 as a starting point - with Labour on 48 per cent, National on 43 per cent, and minor parties netting the remaining 9 per cent across the country - I've calculated that things staying broadly true to their historical patterns, that would translate in Northcote to National getting 46.78 per cent, Labour 45.07%, and minor parties 8.15% of the party vote.
Then, allowing for the pattern of how candidates in Northcote have gone relative to the party vote of their party in the electorate, (National overperforms by an average of 5.15 percentage points, Labour overperforms by 2.23 percentage points, and minor parties underperform by 7.43 percentage points), that would see the following results:
- National candidate: 51.93%
- Labour candidate: 47.35%
- Minor parties: 0.73%
(due to rounding this does come out at 100.01% if you add those up)
That gives National a 4.58 percentage point advantage over Labour. If I use a slightly different measure - looking at the relative percentage difference rather than percentage points, it delivers a result still in favour of National, but with a 5.47 percentage point lead.
With that predicted 4.58 - 5.47 percentage point lead in favour of National, it's worth considering a few other factors that will come into play. Labour has an immensely popular leader and Prime Minister in Jacinda Ardern. Where Labour seemed to perform strongly in the 2017 election was the youth age groups, those aged 18-34. Incidentally Northcote experienced a 1.29 percentage point increase in the turnout of those voters in 2017. In terms of usually resident population, Northcote has a median age of 35, that's versus a median age of voters in the 2017 election of 48. Northcote sits within the youngest third of general electorates, and is in company with some relatively strong Labour voting seats. Advantage Labour in terms of age demographics.
Conversely, Northcote sits within the highest third of general electorates for median family income, and that places it in the company of some strongly voting National seats. So advantage National in that regard.
In terms of ethnic breakdown Northcote has below below NZ rates of people identifying as Pākehā (European), Māori, and Pacific Islanders, but it does have more than double the New Zealand rate of people identifying as being from from Asian backgrounds. How this will play out is hard to predict. Under John Key and, to a lesser extent Bill English, National was fairly confident that that Asian-New Zealanders were generally strong National supporters. This was reinforced by Labour playing several xenophobic race cards over the past few years, including the "Chinese sounding surnames" debacle, Andrew Little's attack on Indian and Chinese chefs, and the moves to ban foreign buyers - a policy that's been seen as promoting anti-Chinese sentiment which inevitably impacts Chinese-Kiwis. National should still have an advantage in this regard, but it's notoriously difficult to quantify.
Looking at religious affiliation (though admittedly this isn't a the strongest indicator of voting preferences in New Zealand largely due to Kiwis taking a relatively relaxed approach to religion, as is evidenced by having two openly non-religious Prime Ministers in recent memory, those being John Key and Helen Clark), Northcote has a slightly above average representation on non-religious people and slightly below average numbers of Christians vs New Zealand as a whole. I'll make the point again that this is a hard measure to use to predict voter patterns, especially as while National might generally be the party perceived as attracting Christian voters, Labour also has significant Christian support through its strong support in Pacific Island communities. This isn't so much of a factor in Northcote, but insofar that I'd argue that non-religious people are more likely to vote for Labour (even though I'm personally an exception to my own rule) I feel that potentially Labour might have a slight edge in this regard.
While I've written about Ardern and how she turned out the youth vote for Labour - largely at the expense of the Green Party it seemed at the time - National has a different problem. Simon Bridges, while having been a relatively high profile minister and hence having more of a public profile than most new leaders might have, is still new to the role. He doesn't have the same name recognition that John Key or Bill English had, and as such can't be counted on to bring out voters like Ardern will for Labour. That's not a criticism of Bridges, rather it's the simple reality that he's new to the job of being leader and outside of a general election campaign it's generally hard to get cut-through with voters as an opposition leader.
At the current stage of the electoral cycle, Labour does have an edge over National with regards to deploying their leader as a way to promote their candidate. I don't doubt that Simon Bridges will do as good of a job as any new leader for National could do, but it's important to acknowledge that he's also up against Jacinda Ardern who, along with being the Prime Minister, has already built a formidable media profile that's hard to match in such a short time.
The other thing that should count in Labour's favour is that in a by-election minor parties typically either don't run candidates, or struggle to get any cut through. In Northcote's case, minor party candidates have particularly struggled since the highs of Grant Gillon. In 2008 and 2014 New Zealand First didn't run a candidate in Northcote at all, and neither did the Green Party in 2005. If I were Labour, I'd of already started negotiations with New Zealand First and the Green Party to not run candidates in the Northcote by-election, and I'd offer policy concessions in return. Bumping the Government's working majority up a vote would be worth it.
If Labour were feeling especially devious, they could look at running one of their sitting List MPs in the seat, and pulling off the same trick that Winston Peters did to National in Northland in 2015, allowing Labour to bring in a replacement MP off the list if they won.
That being said, I think Labour's best chance of winning would sit with picking someone who already has proven electoral experience in the area. 2014 Northcote candidate, and sitting Auckland Councillor Richard Hills springs to mind as perhaps Labour's best chance. Hills topped the Kaipātiki Local Board results in the 2016 election, but as he placed second to Chris Darby for the North Shore Ward, was elected as an Auckland Councillor instead. Funnily enough, old Grant Gillion of 1999 fame in Northcote missed out to Hills by 128 votes.
Having already run in the seat in 2014, and subsequently becoming a Councillor for North Shore, I think places Hills in a strong position to help Labour take the seat from National. He also captures much of what the rejuvenated face of Labour looks like, and from what I can tell is a bloody hard working local councillor and all round nice guy. While some might criticise him if he stood for Northcote, having only become a councillor in late 2016, I'd argue that situations like this are just the nature of politics. It's probably a once in a lifetime chance to be able to represent your community at the national level, let alone potentially as a Government MP, and the subsequent by-election on North Shore is simply the cost of democracy, and it's a cost that I don't think anyone can reasonably object to paying. I don't think any reasonable person could criticise Hills for doing this.
Which leaves us with National and who they might run. Newshub's Lloyd Burr has already cheekily suggested that Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon wants to enter politics with the National Party. Luxon is based on the North Shore, though I don't know if he falls within Northcote's boundaries (not that this is necessarily a barrier for someone to become an MP). Luxon also has a significant amount of name recognition through his largely successful time at Air New Zealand. That alone could well be important in helping National fight off what should be a very strong challenge from Labour.
National's other options include trying run their own List MP in the seat - with Paul Goldsmith and Melissa Lee being two possibilities if they relocated from their existing bases in Epsom and Mt Albert respectively - which would mean they could bring in another person off the List as well! Alternatively National might have a stellar local candidate in the wings who we haven't seen just yet.
It's often said that by-elections are Christmas come early for beltway watchers, and the Northcote by-election is shaping up to be just that.
20 February, 8am: Steven Joyce announced he's in the leadership race on RNZ's Morning Report.
19 February, 2.40pm: Mark Mitchell has now announced that he's running for leader. Says he's had strong support, was approached three weeks ago to consider standing in the event of Bill English resigning.
19 February, 12.55pm: It's been a bit quiet over the weekend. But Mark Mitchell is poised to make an announcement at 2.30pm in Orewa. Still no word from Steven Joyce. We've put together a MP Endorsement Tracker to keep up with any public endorsements from MPs for a specific candidate. We appreciate there's a lot of speculation about how many votes each candidate might have behind the scenes, but we're no really able to count those.
15 February, 3.40pm: Jonathan Coleman has ruled himself out of the leadership race.
14 February, 3.35pm: Amy Adams has announced she's running for leader. She was joined at the announcement with Nikki Kaye, Maggie Barry, Chris Bishop, and Tim Macindoe, the first show of support from any MPs for a leadership candidate
14 February, 11am: Simon Bridges has announced he's running for leader.
14 February, 10:30am: Correction: RNZ only say that Mark Mitchell had confirmed he's considering making a bid, but only after he's visited his daughter in Australia. I misread their tweet!
14 February, 9.45am: Newstalk ZB has Steven Joyce saying he's considering options on running for the leadership.
Over the coming days I'll try to put together a quick graphic as and when news breaks about who's in and who's out of the National Party's leadership contest. I'll endeavour to update it as and when announcements are made, though I'm still recovering from a nasty illness and injury so will be entirely dependent on whether I'm able to get out of bed.
The above is based on publicly reported statements that I've seen on Twitter. Where an MP hasn't yet made any statement (e.g. Amy Adams hasn't said anything at all on the race) I've opted to not include them in any of the boxes.
2018 will be a tricky year for National, with the Labour-led government still benefitting from a new car smell, and being able to formally launch a raft of signature policies, especially over the first half of the year. So what's in store for the blue team in 2018?
National kicked off the 2018 political year early, with Transport spokesperson Judith Collins launching a series of petitions designed to put the government under pressure to regarding a raft of roading projects that had been proposed under National. This was followed by Nikki Kaye launching another petition calling on the government to resource schools so that primary and intermediate aged school children had access to be taught a second language.
Politically they're both useful strategies. Many of the roading projects being fought for via the petitions enjoy significant support at the electorate level, and Nikki Kaye's second language petition stems from a policy idea National launched in election 2017 that was very warmly received. I suspect much of National's approach in 2018 will look similar to what we've seen over the past couple of weeks.
That means that on the one hand National will look to a piece of Key/English era policy that's under threat and use a potential threat to it as a way to attack the new government, but at the same time they'll promote a new, innovative policy in a different area. It's a strategy that will allow National to both stand up to protect their own record in government, as well as move their policy platform forward for 2020.
Remember too that petitions aren't just about promoting a policy or pressuring the government on a given issue, they're also an important tool to bolster email lists and inform voter ID databases. Expect a steady stream of these throughout 2018.
The big question that will hover over National throughout 2018 is whether Bill English will stay or go. English indicated after the election that he intended to stay on to contest 2020 as leader, and the reality is that should he want to, and National's poll numbers continue to hold up, there's every chance he could do that. Bill English is immensely well respected and liked within the National Party, and unless National's polling drops below 40%, it's unlikely there will be any moves to challenge him.
In the event that English decides to leave, or the poll numbers drop off, I'd expect any leadership transition to take place in the second half of the year, possibly around June to August. In part, this is because the new government should, off the back of a busy first half of the year, hit its best poll numbers as a result of the Budget, meaning that post-Budget could be when Bill English decides to call stumps on what's been a long and dedicated career of public service.
Likewise, from that point forward, the strengths that English would trade on versus the government - the experience of him and his team - will deliver diminishing returns as more water goes under the government's bridge as their team builds on their own experience and irons out any teething problems.
Much of National's ability to reinvent themselves going into 2020 may well rest on what English does. If English does decide to leave, along with the leadership contest, it will likely trigger a few other departures too. List MPs like David Carter, Chris Finlayson, and Nicky Wagner may well announce their departures soon after, while a slew of electorate MPs such as Gerry Brownlee, Anne Tolley, Ian McKelvie, and Nick Smith, will likely wait until late 2019 or early 2020 to announce they won't be standing again. I'd be genuinely surprised if any of the National electorate MPs leave mid-term and trigger a by-election, unless they happen to stand for a local body role in 2019.
All of this leaves the question - if not Bill English as leader, then who? In my mind there's a handful of contenders who I'll list in no particular order:
- Paula Bennett: Currently Deputy Leader, and former Deputy Prime Minister, Bennett is generally well liked throughout the party. Much like John Key, she not only has a compelling backstory, but she does tend to polarise opinion outside the party, with people either loving or hating her. Bennett's personal "westie" brand would offer an interesting contrast with the more inner city urban charisma of Jacinda Ardern.
- Simon Bridges: National's Leader of the House, Bridges has long been talked about as a future leader of the party. Respected throughout the party, Bridges occupies a special place in National for having nearly snuffed out New Zealand First by beating Winston Peters in Tauranga in 2008. Bridges also has experience going one-on-one versus Ardern, having both been part of TVNZ's political "Young Guns" panel on Breakfast.
- Nikki Kaye: The Auckland Central MP and former Education Minister has one thing that no other candidate has - she's beaten Jacinda Ardern not once, but twice in Auckland Central, a seat that demographically could be a strong Labour seat. Kaye has also won plaudits both for a formidable work ethic, as well as bringing a fresh and innovative approach to her portfolio areas. While Nikki Kaye has recently ruled out running to be leader if Bill English leaves, I don't think anyone should read too much into that denial.
- Amy Adams: With her background and links to rural New Zealand, Adams offers an opportunity for National to go after New Zealand First in provincial New Zealand. On top of that, Adams also has a strong grasp of policy and a well respected record during her tenure as a Minister. Adams also kept her powder dry during the post-Key leadership contest.
- Jonathan Coleman: Following John Key's resignation, the then Health Minister pitched himself as someone who could refresh National's approach. There's no reason to think that Coleman's ambition has diminished since going into opposition, and his hand may very well be strengthened in a post-English world.
Outside possibilities include Judith Collins, who challenged for the leadership in December 2016, as well as Steven Joyce who has refused to speculate on any ambition to be leader of the party.
Whatever happens with National's leadership, there is a need to use 2018 to make the switch from the traditional combative role of opposition to being an opposition that leads the conversation on policy issues. The usual attack-based approach to opposition didn't work for either Labour or National during their spells in the wilderness in the past two decades, and it was only largely when both parties moved away from that approach that they started to enjoy electorate success.
This will be a challenge for National, because as much as they need to make this switch going into 2020, it's also important that they're not seen to turn their backs too quickly on the Key/English era. A leadership change would make this easier, but it is still possible if English decides to stay on to contest the 2020 election.
National will still need to, as much as possible, hold the government to account, keep the feet of poorly performing or struggling government ministers to the fire, poke and prod at policy and personality tension points between Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens, and ensure that they make their voices heard at Parliament. But now is the time to get their ducks in a row for 2020.