Labour’s overwhelming victory at the election has been greeted with rousing cheers on the left of New Zealand politics and the start of transformational demands. It’s a multi-generational win for Labour, out-polling the Kirk, Lange and Clark victories.

You have to go back to 1938 for a bigger percentage (55.8 percent) and to 1935 for a bigger bunch of new MPs (29).

No captionPhoto: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Through a series of crisis, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has hugged New Zealand close, and this week New Zealanders from a range of viewpoints returned her embrace.

As the first party to win a majority rather than a plurality under MMP, Labour is atop the political world. Given that the Greens also survived the supposed scare of falling under the 5 percent threshold (something I always said would never happen), the activist new MPs they are bringing to government and the rout of the traditional foe, National, can understand why the left feel so triumphalist. They see a red tide that has, ironically, lifted all their boats.

So why does The Rime of the Ancient Mariner keep coming to mind?

“Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

Labour has massive support. But can it actually use it to deliver what those on the left are anticipating?

For all the dominance of Labour’s victory, bizarrely I’d go so far as to ask who really won the 2020 election. What precisely does this mandate mean? I suspect it is much more complex than it looks and to read it as a swing to the left, is to misread the nation’s motives. I suspect Labour will have a much more difficult three years ahead acting on the support it has won than most people are suggesting. The majority coalition of voters it has built is riddled with dangers that will test Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson’s political skills.

It may seem odd to say, but in many ways this result is a pretty good one for the centre-right and pretty poor for the Greens. It’s not a tribal win on the right, because National has been struck a terrible blow that could well see it floundering for more than one term. But with the wisdom of the crowd, centre-right voters have seen National’s internal problems, looked around for a handbrake on a Labour-Greens transformative government and landed on a fascinating champion – Labour itself.

They recognised sincere conservatism when they saw it and have trusted Labour to hug the centre. They heard Jacinda Ardern bet her career ruling out a capital gains tax, wealth tax and changes to superannuation. They saw Grant Robertson imposing borrowing limits on himself and promising to save for the next crisis. And they have taken Labour at its word.

What makes me say that? In part, memories of David Lange in 1987.

“And it set me to think what on earth have we done that we come within 400 votes of winning the true-blue seat of Remuera.

“And that struck me as being a dangerous flirtation, and an act of treachery to the people we were born to represent.”

That was when the right swung behind Labour in great numbers because Rogernomics had spurred a stock-market boom, shrunk the state and freed business from regulation. This is different. The right is reacting to Covid-19, National’s weakness and the limitations of MMP. It is trying to moderate the swing left rather than praise the swing right. But the numbers should still give Labour pause.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters campaigning at Orewa Community Centre in Auckland on 25 September.Labour may have gained some votes off NZ First, but mostly from National, Tim Watkin writes Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Labour has provisionally picked up 14 electorate seats and four additional list MPs, with a swing of more than 12 percent.

That may have come a little from New Zealand First, but mostly from National. National won the party vote in only four electorates – Taranaki-King Country, Waikato, Epsom and Tamaki. Labour won the party vote in every South Island electorate.

Safe National seats saw majorities slashed. Labour over-turned Gerry Brownlee’s 8000 vote buffer in Ilam, but also cut the bluest of seats such as Selwyn from a majority of nearly 20,000 to just under 5000. Bay of Plenty went from 14,000 to 3472. Kaikōura from over 10,500 to 2282.

Some of that vote is a thanks for management of the Covid crisis. Some of that will represent a willingness for some action on some issues. I was speaking to one life-long National voter this weekend who voted Labour for the first time and said he was willing to see GDP lower and slower if Labour was prepared to really move on poverty reduction.

But many of those voters, having given up on Winston Peters and seeing National without a hope of winning, have opted for Labour as its own handbrake, ensuring the Greens don’t have the power to pull Labour further left. They have built a moat for Labour, separating it from those on its left flank.

This unlikely coalition puts Labour in a bind for the next three years. It faces some tough choices on which master to serve. Its base or the new voters it has lured across the blue line? Does it listen to its loyalists and assume it is only borrowing some National voters for a few years or does it try to re-imagine itself as the social democratic centrist party of government? Does it want runs on the board for the poor and marginalised or does it want to build a legacy of power and lock in a third term and possibly a fourth term?

No captionLabour leader Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

This is the sort of tension that can tear at a party. Because the expectation from the left is now mammoth. Labour has made it clear that New Zealand First held it back on labour market reform and climate action, for example. Unfettered from Peters, will it now push hard on such issues? Within hours Greenpeace had a statement out saying the fresh government “has no good reason to put off action on nature and climate”.

“With Winston Peters and his party gone,” said former Greens leader Russel Norman, “we expect to see immediate moves to tackle agricultural climate pollution, to invest in rail and cycleways, and to protect the oceans from overfishing.”

But Labour’s manifesto tells another story. Its promises are limited, its direction of travel timid. If it goes ‘further and faster’, it will quickly lose its new converts. The very converts that have given it a majority.

In that sense, while the numbers look like a massive result for the progressive end of politics in NZ, in fact they didn’t give the Greens enough. Those who voted Labour, assuming they would work with the Greens regardless and take on the Greens’ ‘farther and faster’ mantra even from a position of strength could well be disappointed.

Ardern and Robertson have shown themselves to be as cautious as they are astute in reading mandates. If the first term is anything to go by, they will be reading this result as a mandate for more of the same, not for a bold second term transformation. In short, some of its supporters now want the do-little status quo and some want the promised transformation.

Ardern has promised both and now has to find a way to walk the line without falling over-board.

Whichever way they play it, the pressure will come on them. There is much water, as the poem says, but is it water they can use to explore new horizons or is it steady as she goes? Could it even be such a flood of support it could sink the good ship Labour and Captain Ardern?

Congratulations Labour on being able to govern alone. But now you’ve got to govern alone.