Can Chlöe Swarbrick win Auckland Central for the Green Party in the 2020 general election?
The answer is yes, which is not to say it will happen. But Auckland Central is a marginal seat, it’s already a Greens stronghold, relative to most electorates, and Swarbrick is one of her party’s most widely liked, admired and effective MPs.
The Greens’ chances in Auckland Central, with Swarbrick, are better than anywhere else.
On the other hand, the seat is held by Nikki Kaye, a National Party front-bencher who’s very popular in the electorate and knows how to win. She’s the only politician in New Zealand who can say they’ve beaten Jacinda Ardern, and she did it twice. Kaye and National itself will be extremely keen to hold on to the seat.
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Neither Swarbrick nor Kaye has yet been selected by their party, and nor has Labour chosen its candidate. No matter: the contest seems likely and it will be a cracker.
Fireworks aside, though, does it even matter? You bet. Under MMP, in this election, no seat matters more.
MMP is in trouble right now, thanks to three factors. The first is the 5 per cent threshold rule, which has kept the door closed on several small parties.
The second is the 2018 anti “waka jumping” law. In the eight MMP elections to date, there’s been only one way a new minor party has entered Parliament in a general election: an existing MP or MPs has had to defect from a major party and form a new one.
That is now illegal: defectors must resign as MPs, thus foregoing status and, critically, financial support.
The third is that minor parties in Government exhaust the patience of their supporters, who don’t accept the need for compromise and slow progress. So they abandon them.
Neither the Greens nor NZ First can feel super-confident they will be back after the 2020 election. Act will only be back if National, as expected, continues to gift it the blue-ribbon seat of Epsom.
Enter Auckland Central. Labour cannot expect to win the 2020 election on its own. The worst result for it will be the Greens and NZ First winning around 4 per cent of the vote each, giving them no seats but swallowing up some 100,000 votes.
With the Epsom arrangement, National has shown in four elections now that it understands this aspect of MMP better than Labour. A win for Act in Epsom gives a reliable potential coalition partner a seat; if Act wins more than about 1.3 per cent of the party vote it starts to accumulate more MPs.
National and Act form a natural alliance. Both Labour and the Greens struggle to grasp that they do too. If they understood this, they would move to the logical next step, which is to maximise the potential of their party votes by ensuring the Greens have an electorate seat.
This is not true for Labour and NZ First, because NZ First is a fickle friend at the best of times. It has no natural allies.
That means Labour should help the Greens win a seat. Which one? The Greens have historically polled best in Wellington Central, Auckland Central, Rongotai, Mt Albert, Christchurch Central and Dunedin North. There’s an odd one out in that list: they’re all seats held by Labour, except Auckland Central.
That’s the seat it would be easiest for Labour to allow the Greens to take the lead in. A Greens win in Auckland Central would provide the centre-left with the satisfaction of beating a National incumbent, while a loss would not hurt them. But if a Labour electorate MP stands aside for a Greens candidate in a seat currently held by Labour, and the Greens don’t win, that’s red faces all round.
Nikki Kaye held Auckland Central in 2017 with a majority of 1581. She won 45 per cent of the candidate vote, against a combined 50 per cent for the Labour and Greens candidates.
The party vote was 39 per cent to National and 52 per cent to Labour and the Greens.
These numbers provide good news for both sides: in this electorate, a united centre-left should beat the centre-right, but Kaye is more popular than her party so she could upset that.
The immediate question is: what will Labour do? Its 2017 candidate, lawyer Helen White, has said she wants another crack at it. But she didn’t do well last time: the party vote in Auckland Central swung more to Labour than in almost any other electorate, but the candidate vote went the other way. Kaye doubled her majority.
There’s no reason for Labour to believe it can win Auckland Central next year, with White or anyone else, and every reason for it to recognise the electorate as its Epsom.
Swarbrick has had a remarkable first term in Parliament. She’s been effective in several fields, especially mental health and drug law reform, and she’s done it without making many enemies. A couple of grudgy boomers aside, you’d go far in that place to find an MP more widely liked.
Unleash those attributes in an electorate campaign and who knows what will happen.
But don’t write off National’s Nikki Kaye. She’s one of the leading liberal MPs in a caucus increasingly given to turning its back on liberalism, but that doesn’t make her irrelevant. On the contrary, she’s become invaluable to them.
“We are the party of roads,” says leader Simon Bridges, the party that’s “tough on gangs”, the party that will put an end to craziness wherever you find it.
National spies votes to be won among everyone who believes the world should be restored the way it was and the only problem with roads is that there aren’t enough of them. But those votes won’t win it the election. The party also has to be credible to urban liberals and for that it needs MPs like Nikki Kaye.
Climate change, education and health policies that work for everyone, excellent public transport: issues like these are where National’s credibility will be most sorely tested. Kaye is strong on all of them. Having her at Simon Bridges’ shoulder and performing well in her electorate is one of the best ways the party has to show the country – and particularly the vote-rich city of Auckland – that it stands for progress.
Besides, four-term incumbent front-benchers like Kaye shouldn’t be beaten by whippersnappers. She’s got far too much self-respect to let that happen.
And yet, there’s history in this electorate. Sandra Lee won it for the Alliance in 1993. And in 2008, Kaye herself, then just 28, ran a barnstorming campaign that included knocking on 10,000 doors. She beat a Government minister, Judith Tizard, even though National had never before won the seat.
The clarion calls are sounding, and Kaye knows it better than anyone: if you drop your guard, the young tyke you thought was merely sniffing at your heels will suddenly be at your throat. They play to win, these liberals.
They have to. The whole 2020 election could ride on who wins Auckland Central.