As the polls start to swing back into action, a look across the electoral battlefield sees two major party leaders both struggling to get firm footing and take the high ground

Any which way you look at it, it seems impossible. History leans hard on both major parties at the moment, suggesting they are heading into an election year battling against the odds. There are good reasons why both red and blue teams should see this election as unwinnable – and good reasons why they may not want to win – but, thing is, one of them will. But which?

National

National goes into this election hard up against the nine year rule. Fourth terms are notoriously hard to come by; only the Liberals, Reform, the first Labour government and second National government have been able to achieve them and two of those were during the world wars.

While National has tried a mid-term refresh with the resignation of John Key, you only have to look back to Jenny Shipley's move to replace Jim Bolger at about the same time in the electoral cycle to know that's no guarantee of success.

As I've written before, six substitute Prime Ministers have tried to win office since Peter Fraser in the 1930s and all have failed. So, even with a stonking lead ove rhis main rivals, Bill English has his work cut out, not least because of the variables and traps of MMP.

What's most notable to me since English took over nine weeks ago is that he's tactically done little, if anything, to differentiate his administration from John Key's. While some in political circles at the time were murmuring that the worst thing National could do post-Key is try to run "a John Key government without John Key". Yet in most things English seems to be committed to keeping calm and carrying on.

He seems to have calculated that either his lead is sufficient to get him to September (Hare and the Tortoise anyone?) or that 'sure and steady' is a vote winner. Either those, or he has simply run out of ideas.

It does rather take ones mind back to the deputy leaders debate at the 2014 election in which he, depsite being asked several times, could not come up with one new idea for the New Zealand economy.

And if you want proof positive of that assertion, just look at his speech to the opening of parliament this year. Go through each page and look for the words he uses to describe his party's work plans for the year. He uses the word "begin" just once; "implement" twice. One potentially new idea he will "explore" and another he will "consult" on.

In comparison, English, in describing his plans in health, education, welfare, foreign policy, even housing, uses the word "continue" 31 times. He uses "progress" another 14 times. Facing the chance to make history and redeem his leadership record, he's simply carrying on what National would have done anyway and no showing any sign of new thinking or adapting to the times.

Every signal he's sending is that he's the anti-change candidate. It certainly fits his conservative character. The question National MPs must be asking is whether it fits the times.

This first poll of the year gives him some succour; which third term government wouldn't be happy with 46 percent support and a ten seat lead on its rival centre-left coalition? In Pundit's poll of polls, it barely moved through 2016 and while TVNZ's poll suggests a wee slip, it's still a strong place to be. We'll know more a couple of more polls in.

Labour

Our poll of polls offers less comfort for Labour and Andrew Little. A year ago Labour was on 29 percent and promising big moves, big announcements. By year's end it was down to 27 percent. Even this week's TVNZ poll of 30 percent leaves it well shy of where it needs to be to truly threaten the Treasury benches.

Last year was, Little said, one for laying out policy and building the foundations ahead of a campaigning year in 2017. Beyond, perhaps, the promise of three free years of tertiary education, I'd dare you to find two people in the street tomorrow who could name any of Labour's big, new, winning policies from last year.

And when you have a leader on single figures in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, policy is really all you have.

That's perhaps why Poto Williams felt able to challenge her leader in public and get away with it; clearly Labour's caucus members still have their doubts about Little. Williams' challenge over the Willie Jackson appointment raised all the old chestnuts of worry for Labour and told potential swing voters they were still not worthy of their trust.

Can you imagine what would happen in National – or just about any other party – if a backbencher met with her leader to discuss an issue on a Friday and still went ahead and put up a critical Facebook post on Sunday written in conjunction with a private PR firm? Toast. That Williams survived that insurrection only tells you Little fears his caucus and another ruccus more than he fears looking weak in public.

Labour has started the year doubling down on housing as the vote-changing issue, but seems to be struggling to find another. Poverty, perhaps, but National has benefit increases and minimum wage rises to point to.

Immigration is there for the taking – for a while, although it's hard to imagine National not seeing them off at that pass – but Labour has a knack for getting its knickers twisted on that as it tries to be nationalist and pro-migrant at the same time.

Either way, Little had a chance upon Key's resignation to make a strong, enthusiastic bid for the middle ground. National's discipline through a single week of transition was formidable, but for those seven days at least Labour had the chance to impose itself and its agenda. 'I am John Key's heir to the centre of New Zealand politics', Little could have cried. It was time for a big signal to make people look anew; instead he mumbled about Labour's win in Mt Roskill (holding a safe seat). The moment passed.

So, just as it would be historic for English to overcome the odds and win in September, so it would be for Little to triumph. Remember: He's a list MP with no personal or party momentum and a less than stable group of MPs almost 20 points behind in the polls (though that may be as low as seven if you include the Greens).

His reliance on the Greens shows just how far Labour is from where they want to be. And yes, if he can find another five percent and, yes, if National falls by a similar number, then he can make a case for a change in government. And yes, then he can push the Greens into a marginal supply and confidence role while he does a deal with New Zealand First.

But that seems a long way off just seven months out from election day.

So whether you're red or blue this year, your team is going to make history. Unless, you're black and white, of course. That, my friends, would be history of quite a different kind.

Comments (21)

by Alan Johnstone on February 21, 2017
Alan Johnstone

Obviously very early in the year and we need to see the trend, but didn't that poll show opposition parties that look certain to make it back at 52%? I don't really see the need for a 5% swing to change the government. 1 or 2 % looks enough.

Things that will be very interesting, the left appear to have decided on a decapitation strategy against Peter Dunne to reduce the overhang.

by Anne on February 21, 2017
Anne

Andrew Little appears to be playing the long, pragmatic game where individual electorate considerations re-candidate selections takes precedence (for the time being) over national popularity. We've seen it with the selection of Greg O,Conner in Ohuria, Deborah Russell in New Lynn and there are no doubt others. Add to that the pragmatic choice to reinvent Willie Jackson for the purpose of attracting the 'missing million' in areas like Sth Auckland, and I think he could be on to a winning strategy - one which largely flies under the radar through to election Day.

Polls have their uses but not as many as the media like to imagine. For starters, the preferred PM stakes is a largely meaningless exercise which often has little bearing on outcomes. The fact that a former PM, who was registering a 41% rating, should plummet as low as 2% nine weeks later is a case in point.

I've never understood why the media kick up such a song and dance about preferred PM stakes when it is clear the majority tend to state the first name that comes into their heads - a name that invariably happens to be the same as the prime minister of the day.

by Anne on February 21, 2017
Anne

Oops.. that should be Ohariu. 

by Rich on February 21, 2017
Rich

National has tried a mid-term refresh with the resignation of John Key

That's one way to look it. I was thinking of it more that John Key's child had become sufficiently embarrassing as to force him to take a more low profile some distance from electorate and offspring: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=11800199

by Tim Watkin on February 21, 2017
Tim Watkin

Alan, once opposition, not always opposition.

by Tim Watkin on February 21, 2017
Tim Watkin

Anne, preferred PM polls do have limited use. But they matter more for an opposition leader than the PM. Yes, PMs always tend to have that instance recognition and you can lead a popular enough party without being popular yourself. Just ask Jim Bolger.

But for an opposition leader it's a sign whether there's any traction for change and any faith that people will trust you with the top job. I may be wrong, but Little's low ratings suggest to me people are struggling to see him doing that job.

by Alan Johnstone on February 22, 2017
Alan Johnstone

One thing that appears clear, a Bill English led National party is much more attractive partner for NZF than a Key one. Bit more social conservatism, bit less international finance.

My prediction this far out is a NAT / NZF deal. 

by Graeme Edgeler on February 22, 2017
Graeme Edgeler

What's most notable to me since English took over nine weeks ago is that he's tactically done little, if anything, to differentiate his administration from John Key's. ...

He seems to have calculated that either his lead is sufficient to get him to September (Hare and the Tortoise anyone?) or that 'sure and steady' is a vote winner. Either those, or he has simply run out of ideas.

It's not possible that all or most of the major ideas of the Key Government were English's to begin with? Should he get rid of the investment focus to social services because it was an idea of his that Key liked enough to pick up?

by Anne on February 22, 2017
Anne

@ Tim Watkin

I more or less answered the question of the preferred PM stakes in relation to Andrew Little when I pointed out he has been "playing the long pragmatic game...".

He has been clearly concentrating on getting the right candidates in to the right places - his professional and union background having taught him the lesson that to succeed he and his team must ensure the broadest possible representation across the electorate for Labour to win. One of the main reasons for Labour's poor showing in recent elections is because they largely forgot that essential ingredient, and relied too much on what has euphemistically been termed "identity politics".

The process is almost complete so I think we will see him start to concentrate more on his national image. Indeed it has already begun with a much needed spruce-up of his over-all image. He has six months to improve that image, and as the election draws closer, his opportunties to do so will markedly increase. It will be up to him to make the most of it.

by Ross on February 22, 2017
Ross

I may be wrong, but Little's low ratings suggest to me people are struggling to see him doing that job.

Helen Clark polled as low as 2% in Opposition but polled considerably higher while PM. Little has nothing to worry about - if he becomes PM his poll rating will inevitably rise.

 

by Tim Watkin on February 23, 2017
Tim Watkin

Graham, many would have been. And of course no government is going to back away from one of its landmark policies unless it's getting slammed (Richardson's reform agenda, Clark's closing the gaps). But the government has a huge agenda and many ideas come through cabinet. Key too, would have favoured many and not others. 

A new captain means the chance to make some new captain's calls. There would be things English hasn't been able to do, but more to the point there should be all kinds of ideas coming through cabinet that he could latch on to. If not, then they are stale.

Bit most of all, election year politics in particular are in large part about optics; you find something to make your own, to motivate the base or, more importantly, swing voters, and generate momentum. He's taking a risk not doing that 

by Tim Watkin on February 23, 2017
Tim Watkin

Alan, agreed. Much easier for Winston and Bill. Old conservative tuskers of the world unite. And as I say, I'm sure National will move on immigration so the fit will be even easier. Still, lots of thorny policy issues too.

by Tim Watkin on February 23, 2017
Tim Watkin

Anne, those recruitments matter but they are not a replacement for looking like a PM in waiting, seizing the Key agenda, stopping rebellions etc. He's left it all rather late and needs to walk and, if you're right and those have been his focus, he needs to walk and chew gum at the same time. 

by Tim Watkin on February 23, 2017
Tim Watkin

Ross, that's a great old chestnut, but not very accurate. By election year Clark was close to Shipley and she passed Shipley during the campaign. There's no suggestion Little will do that; he's much further behind.

by Ross on February 23, 2017
Ross

Ross, that's a great old chestnut, but not very accurate. By election year Clark was close to Shipley and she passed Shipley during the campaign

You're ignoring that fact that Clark's rating was low for her first 3 years as Opposition leader. She was poliing about 5% in 1996, the year that Labour could have governed if Peters had not cosied up to National post-election. A low poll rating for a leader is largely meaningless. If Little becomes PM his poll rating will increase. That too will be irrelevant.

http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2014/03/opposition_leader_in_the_preferred_pm_...

by Tim Watkin on February 25, 2017
Tim Watkin

Ross, I'm working on the assumption Labour wants to win this year, not next time. I heard the same arguments in 2011 and 2014; they leader hasn't had long enough to get runs on the board etc. But after three terms out of power that can't wash for the party if it has any ambition. Key was able to move the dial within a term and voter confidence in him certainly mattered in 2008.

So while it's not the be-all and end-all, I'm afraid I don't buy the argument that it just doesn't matter. It's certainly a reason why – as I was saying in the post – Labour winning would be against the odds (just as National winning would be).

And in fact, you make the argument in your own point. Clark was not popular when Peters chose to go with National in 96. That was one of the reasons he didn't choose to go with her and her party; National having the numbers mattered. And it will matter again this time. In other words, Little won't get the chance to have his numbers grow as PM if he and his party don't look to have a mandate – or strong enough – to anyone who may be kingmaker.

by Charlie on February 25, 2017
Charlie

I think it's a fairly safe bet that we'll see another National led coalition.

My reasoning is as follows:

Labour attaching itself to the hip of the Greens continues to put off centrist voters. There are simply too many crackpots in the Greens to be considered capable of running the country.

Little is very unpopular, even among his own caucus.

Little's move to the far left (appointed ex Alliance people into key rolls) is statistical suicide: He needs to be in the middle of the curve to win.

Labour has no money to fight an election.

Labour's membership roll is steadily falling. Even Chris Trotter has written about this, suggesting the Greens may now have more active members than Labour.

Winston will probably be the kingmaker (or the king?) and he is highly unlikely to want to form a coalition with the Greens.

I am also tempted to think that the tide of history is flowing against Labour. The conservative win in the UK, the Brexit vote and Trump's victory all show a global move toward conservatism. Marie Le Pen is leading in French opinion polls as is Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands. I suspect Merkel is past her use-by date as well.

But a day in politics is a long time. We have yet to see how KDC will try to influence the election to avoid his day in a US court. And we have yet to see what rubbish Nicky Hager comes up with this time around.

 

by Alan Johnstone on February 25, 2017
Alan Johnstone

Pin Fortuyn has been dead for 15 years

by Charlie on February 26, 2017
Charlie

Alan: Yes of course. Thanks. Pim was stabbed to eath by a Muslim terrorist.

I meant to say Gert Wilders

 

 

by Alan Johnstone on February 26, 2017
Alan Johnstone

I agree that the tide of history is against the left.

The post WW2 social welfare systems aren't supportable in the face of the rise of asia as an economic superpower.

Increasingly people see hard headed nationalistic governement as the solution.

by Anne on February 28, 2017
Anne

Lets to a little picking apart for Charlie's benefit.

Q."Labour attaching itself to the hip of the Greens continues to put off centrist voters. There are simply too many crackpots in the Greens to be considered capable of running the country."

A. Get up with the times. The 'crackpots' abandoned the party yonks ago. The Greens are a MAIN STREAM PARTY. And they won't be 'running the country'. They will be a minority part of a coalition government who will be running the country.

Q "Little is very unpopular, even among his own caucus."

A.  Ha,ha,ha,ha. He's only the most liked and respected leader among his caucus since Helen Clark. Much wishful thinking there mate.

Q. "Little's move to the far left (appointed ex Alliance people into key rolls) is statistical suicide:..."

A.  Labour had never been 'far left' except in its earliest history.You're 100 years behind the game!

Q."Labour has no money to fight an election."

A. Labour will never have as much money as National but then again it doesn't play footsies with the 'filthy rich off the tax payers back brigade'. It's doing okay in the money stakes now.

Q."Labour's membership roll is steadily falling. Even Chris Trotter has written about this,... 

A. Oh bullshit and jelly beans. Labour's membership has been steadily rising in the past 5-6 years. It's almost back to where it was before Rogernomics hit the road. Chris Trotter was talking about the mass memberships of the 1930s through to the 60s in particular. ALL political parties have since suffered big membership losses. I think the last two byelections put paid to your claim the Greens have more active members.

The rest of your diatribe is not worthy of comment.

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