New Zealand

Youthquake rumbles to a stop? Support for the left falls among New Zealand’s young voters | New Zealand

When New Zealand’s Labour party was elected in 2017, commentators heralded the “youthquake”. Jacinda Ardern had brought a dose of progressive energy and charisma to New Zealand politics – as well as a youthful face for Labour, and promises of transformative change. When the results rolled in, voter turnout was up across the board – but the biggest increases were among younger voters: turnout rose by 6.5% for 18- to 24-year-olds, and 5.5% among people aged 25-29.

Now, New Zealand could be seeing evidence of a move in the opposite direction, with indications that leftwing support among young people could be sinking – a result which, if it holds, would buck international trends. Polling released this week in the inaugural Guardian Essential poll found that among New Zealand’s 18- to 34-year-olds, just 20% were voting for Labour, the major centre-left party, compared with almost 40% supporting the centre-right National party. Support was not being distributed further left – the Labour-Greens coalition accounted for 34% of millennial votes, compared with a National-Act coalition sitting at close to 50%.

Back in 2017, polling indicated the Ardern-led Labour party had a huge edge with young people. Polling by SSI commissioned by Newsroom ahead of the election found those aged 18 to 24 favoured Labour by 65% compared with 14% for National.

Poll numbers should always be treated with caveats – individual polls only capture a snapshot of sentiment, and the more a sample is broken down into subgroups, such as age, gender and location, the smaller it gets, so the degree of uncertainty grows. Younger age demographics are also more volatile in their voting patterns overall, says Peter Stahel, the managing director of Essential.

“Younger voters tend to bounce around more than older age groups … not just on voting intention, on responses to other questions as well, there’s more volatility,” he says.

Young women retreat from left

Data suggesting young voters were swinging right generated surprise among some New Zealand commentators, and denial from the Labour party. A spokesperson for the prime minister’s office declined to discuss Labour’s policy agenda for or relationship with younger voters, saying the result “doesn’t align with other polls and we have no further comment”.

The Essential findings, however, echo similar trends picked up by Roy Morgan research in June. While the margin was slimmer, Labour was again struggling among younger voters, particularly young women. According to Roy Morgan data, the party’s support among young women was 26% – 20 percentage points below the 50-plus age band – and 5 percentage points behind under-50 women’s support for National. Among young men, support for Labour and National was about even. The same results held when comparing the traditional left and right coalition blocs: support for the left was 10 percentage points behind the right for young women, and about even for young men. Stahel says Essential researchers also conducted an additional, unpublished poll a month earlier, to catch outlier numbers – and found the overall trends among young voters held.

It’s possible a large part of turning tides in the youth vote may be driven by a post-Ardern flip in the voting intentions of young women. In 2021, Roy Morgan found that “Ardern’s strength lies with the massive edge in support that the Labour Party received from women”. At that point, nearly half of women supported Labour (49%) compared with only 28.5% of men.

New Zealand prime minister Chris Hipkins and former leader Jacinda Ardern
Young women appear to be supporting Labour in lower numbers since Chris Hipkins replaced Jacinda Ardern in the top job. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Fifa/Getty Images

If the results of the latest polls hold, they would see New Zealand bucking a widespread political trend seen in Europe and the US as young people veer unusually progressive. Analysis by the Financial Times in late 2022 found that millennials in the UK and US were not following the typical trajectory of growing more politically conservative as they aged. Historically, a 35-year-old would be around five percentage points less conservative than the national average and growing more conservative over time, the FT said. But its analysis found young people today were about 15 points less conservative, and holding their course, making them “by far the least conservative 35-year-olds in recorded history”.

The progressive shift in the UK comes after two terms of rightwing government, accompanied by economic turmoil and the pandemic aftermath. In the US, while Democrats currently govern, political analysts have speculated that the “Trump effect” is continuing to push young people leftward. In New Zealand, however, the Labour party has governed since 2017 – and held a parliamentary majority since its landslide victory in 2020.

Failure to deliver

The youth vote’s swing away from the centre left could partly be an incumbency effect, says the Green party’s Chlöe Swarbrick – parliament’s youngest sitting MP at 29. It may also reflect disillusionment with the initial promise and perceived lack of follow-through on radical change during the Ardern years, she says. “Reflecting on the last five, six years, a lot of people were initially really excited by the rhetoric of transformation, but it feels like what has largely been delivered is tinkering,” Swarbrick says. While the Labour government made strong commitments to take action on climate change, housing and child poverty, progress on those central issues – particularly housing and emissions reduction – has been achingly slow.

“If you take the poll at its face value, it is that Labour’s move to the centre is being reflected in the loss of their [youth] base,” says Lamia Imam, a political commentator and former Labour party staffer.

The post-Ardern rebrand of Labour has seen the party running on “a much more centrist position”, Imam says. The new leader, Chris Hipkins, began his tenure by dramatically paring back the policy agenda, doing away with or delaying reforms on hate speech, lowering the voting age, and climate policies focused on lowering transport emissions. He promised a laser-focus on “bread and butter issues” and the economy. His tenure – and the battle against his opponent, Christopher Luxon – has also marked a shift away from the political “stardust” and personality-driven politics of the Ardern years.

For young people, particularly those for whom the climate crisis is a central concern, “I do feel like there is a level of deep demoralisation, a bit of despair at seeing that this is not at the forefront of the major political parties,” Imam says. “It makes me wonder if their support is going to National because they truly support National – or is that support indicative that they are trying to punish Labour?”

That overall sense of disillusionment from young voters is coming through in other political-sentiment polling, says Stahel, as 54% of 18- to 34-year-olds respond that “none of the current options for PM appeal to me”.

“That’s a plague on both your houses kind of number,” he says.

Swarbrick says these numbers come as many are weighed down by an “overwhelming sense of exhaustion” in the wake of Covid and economic pressures.

“Perhaps people [are] distancing themselves from politics because that seems to be a really frustrating kind of place,” she says. Youthquake rumbles to a stop? Support for the left falls among New Zealand’s young voters | New Zealand

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