Party politics in local elections

16 Aug, 2019
Photo of Dr Karen Webster

AUT research shows that candidates affiliated to a central political party are more likely to win seats in Auckland local government.

A study led by Dr Karen Webster at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) explores the influence of central party politics in Auckland local government post-amalgamation. The aim was to determine whether overt and covert political affiliation is on the rise. Another consideration was whether political affiliation is associated with electoral success.

The findings were recently published in the international journal Local Government Studies.

Analysis of candidates and elected members self-declared party accreditation status (political party, local group, independent or no affiliation) across the past four election cycles (2007, 2010, 2013 and 2016) demonstrates an increase in political affiliation overall.

The rise in political affiliation

From 2007 to 2016, there was an upward trend in affiliation to a political party or local group, and a corresponding downward trend in independent and non-affiliated candidates.

The proportion of candidates affiliated to a political party or local group doubled, from 15 to 33 per cent. This was most pronounced at the local board level, with 33 and 29 per cent of candidates affiliated to a political party or local group.

Dr Webster says this reflects both the challenges to win support in larger municipalities and the advantages for political parties in winning local seats in the country’s largest and most populous region.

“With much larger electoral areas to campaign across post-amalgamation, affiliated candidates benefit from an established party structure that supports the national election campaign. With that level of resource, local candidates are better placed to raise voter awareness and compete with lesser resourced opponents,” she says.

“By trailblazing during the Auckland local elections, central political parties can overcome the constraints imposed by the official campaign period, which restricts advertising and campaigning activity to the month prior to the election, and begin raising party profile among one-third of the population a year out from the national campaign.”

Political affiliation and electoral success

The findings not only reveal an increase in political affiliation, but that candidates affiliated to a central political party are more likely to be elected. For party affiliated candidates, success at the ballot box was twice that of local group candidates and almost three times that of self-declared independents.

The resounding success of political affiliation as an electoral tactic in Auckland – with 25 per cent of candidates and 34 per cent of elected members overall – runs counter to the findings of a report published by the Department of Internal Affairs in 2010, which stated that local candidates with no declared affiliation had the highest rate of electoral success.

Dr Webster says this marked increase in political affiliation represents a fundamental change in central political activity at the local level and could be interpreted as a sign that political party involvement in local government is no longer abhorrent to the majority of citizens.

“The reason for this is unclear, but may be attributed to more and more local government issues being of national importance to the voting public in Auckland. With a population of 1.5 million, housing problems in Auckland are a matter of national politics and issues faced by immigrants in the region also speak to the national agenda,” she says.

Previous research found that voters in larger municipalities tended to regard party ideology as important for deciding the vote, whereas voters in smaller municipalities were less oriented towards political parties. Party ideology also goes some way in addressing the lack of candidate information lamented by voters.

Overt and covert political affiliation in 2010

During the first election for an amalgamated Auckland, overt and covert political affiliation played out demonstrably at the ward level.

There was a visible spike in the electoral success of those affiliated to a political party, with 21 per cent of candidates and 40 per cent of councillors. Conversely, there was also a spike in the proportion of self-declared independent candidates, from 34 to 50 per cent. And, while they also managed to achieve 40 per cent of elected members that year, their electoral success rate was far lower.

Dr Webster explains that the majority of successful ward candidates were sitting councillors or local board members and enjoyed a higher profile than many of their rivals, which reduces the advantages of central party affiliation. This upswell in candidates declaring themselves independent at ward level may also be attributed to the traditional perception that political power is unwelcome at local government, often characterised by localism and ratepayer ideology.

“The nuanced nature of political affiliation and the fact that many candidates known to have past political affiliation choose to stand as independents raises questions about the transparency of local politics,” says Dr Webster.

“A declaration of independence send two possible signals – that the candidate wants to convey to voters a priority for local issues, or that the candidate fears reprisals from voters regarding the overt intrusion of national politics in the local arena. Whichever, the concealed nature of political affiliation in Auckland local government is problematic and impacts negatively on the integrity of the local political system.”

The findings show that left-of-centre political affiliation was ‘mostly overt’, including the Labour Party, Green Party, City Vision and Future West, which corresponded with greater political party success on the left of the spectrum. Right-of-centre political affiliation was ‘mostly covert’, represented by Citizens and Ratepayers, Communities and Residents, and Auckland Future.

It was interesting to note that the National Party stood 96 candidates but only won 36 seats in 2010.

“The increasing politicisation of local government in Auckland is providing a new dimension that has the potential to enhance transparency of and participation in local government,” says Dr Webster.


Dr Karen Webster is a senior lecturer in Paramedicine at the AUT School of Clinical Sciences, where she teaches leadership, risk management and clinical governance. Her research focuses on local government representation, Māori and Pākehā governance models, and sustainability. Her academic career follows 15 years in Auckland local government and two decades of service in the New Zealand Army. She holds an MBA and PhD in Public Policy.

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