New Zealand

What NZ politicians will be watching in the UK’s election

As UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak emerged into pouring rain to announce an election date this morning (NZT), a veteran protester almost drowned him out with Labour’s 1997 anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Perhaps they could only get wetter?

The instantly memeable soggy disaster of an announcement fitted well with the general mood in the UK. Polls show 62% of the country think it is heading in the wrong direction, and only a quarter back the ruling Conservative Party. But they can definitely still have a laugh about it.

Humour is the main way UK politics makes it into the New Zealand psyche. You might not know all about the triple lock, but you remember the Liz Truss lettuce, or Boris Johnson’s entire persona, Theresa May having a coughing fit, or perhaps Ed Miliband eating a sandwich.

 

But many of our nation’s politicians watch far more closely. There is a strong relationship between New Zealand’s parties and those in our ‘mother Parliament’ – particularly between National and the Conservatives. Staff have bounced between the two countries, most famously social media team Topham Guerin. Then-Opposition leader Christopher Luxon met with Michael Gove when he was here for the Coronation, and his Government’s new ministers have been eager to visit since the election. (Any further trips will likely be cancelled for now.)

Here’s an idea of what those Kiwi MPs will be watching for in this election.

Do you need policies to win an election?

Labour is soaring in the polls, on track to a huge majority if the polls are to be believed. Some tightening is likely in coming weeks – especially if “don’t knows” start to sort into parties, or the further right “Reform” party fail to fire. But it’s hard to find anyone who really believes a win for Sunak is possible.

That likely win comes despite Labour not setting out much of a policy programme.

The major spending decisions made in recent Government budgets have largely been accepted by Labour, with no promises to roll the big things back. Labour leader Keir Starmer has refused to back efforts by his party to promise obviously “Labour-like” policies, such as getting rid of the cap on benefits for families who have more than two children. And areas where the party has struck out with bolder promises – like on climate-related infrastructure spending and an upgrade of worker’s rights – have seen messy rowbacks.

More policies will pop up in the next two months. But much of it might look like Labour’s promise to add tax to private school fees – a great talking point but hardly country-changing stuff.

New Zealand MPs, used to constant policy announcements to keep themselves in the headlines and a sense of movement strong, will watch closely.

Do tax cuts still matter?

New Zealand politics is warming up for the first income tax cut in well over a decade at next week’s Budget.

The UK Government has cut income taxes twice in the last year, and a promise of more tax cuts seems likely from the Conservatives heading into the election.

Thus far, these tax cuts haven’t really helped the Conservatives in the polls. Voters seem happy to cash the extra money but not really reward the Government for giving it to them. It’s worth noting that Labour has not promised to repeal these cuts – meaning the potential effect is somewhat blunted.

Still, with taxes likely to take the centre stage at some point during the campaign, there will be plenty watching closely to see if in this highly-inflationary environment Governments get much of a reward for cutting taxes.

What happens when neither leader is particularly exciting?

Neither Sunak or Starmer are particularly well-liked by the public. They don’t have the wit of Boris Johnson or the sheen of Tony Blair. Instead they look to project a kind of solid competence.

One could say the same of Labour and National’s leaders in New Zealand. Both are in the mid-20s in preferred prime minister polls. Neither seem likely to grace as many international front pages as Jacinda Ardern.

Of course, New Zealand MPs don’t have to imagine what a showdown between Luxon and Hipkins might look like – they saw one just last year! But more data is always useful, and Luxon enjoyed quite a lead over Hipkins in the preferred Prime Ministerial polls last year. If the 2026 election is another Luxon v Hipkins election it seems likely the two will be more evenly pegged.

Can inflation coming down make voters forget about all the previous inflation?

Sunak called the election today after a fairly good inflation result in the UK – a 2.3% annual rate. (Ours was 4% when last counted.) Sunak is betting that that this drop will help him politically.

The problem with falling inflation for politicians is that it is not deflation. Prices are not coming back down again – they are just not rising as fast.

Eventually voters bake that in and stop worrying about inflation, but when exactly that happens will be crucial.

Can a campaign turn it all around?

The only case you can make for the Conservatives winning involves a basically perfect election campaign, one where the party manages to take back northern socially conservative voters from Reform, centrist voters from Labour across the country, and southern voters from the Lib Dems – all at once, and after 14 years of governing.

This runs against a theory held by many election-watchers – that campaigns only really matter at the margins, with the “fundamentals” of each race baked in a lot earlier through the performance of the economy and other factors. These fundamentals are terrible for the Conservatives, as they were for New Zealand Labour in 2023.

Yet it is hard to ever write the Conservatives off. The Tories are the most successful political party in human history. A win might be impossible, but a much closer loss is far more doable. As we head into what might be a much closer election in 2026, Kiwi MPs will be closely observing just what a well-run campaign can do.

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