It's getting late in the day for Labour to get it together, because its problems aren't first impressions but rather go much deeper

It's still a bold political observer who would want to call the election at this stage. Two new TV polls last night painted a picture that's pretty consistent with our own Poll of Polls – a close election. But the most telling question remains: What is Labour going to do with David?

The TV3-Reid Research poll had National up and the TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll had it down, but they were meeting in much the same place – 46-47 percent. Both had Labour on 31 percent. The Greens are pretty settled around 11 percent at the moment.

In our own Poll of Polls, those will bring National down a smidge, but otherwise the trend across the poll this year is pretty clear and it's in National's favour. While as an MMP election it's still open, National has been in rampant form this year (yes, I've just been reading the football pages!).

In the second half of last year it was a different story. Labour's primary race and David Cunliffe's win put the party in the spotlight and some floating voters liked what they saw. Labour looked like a party tidying its house and getting its act together. It was a solid platform that has been wasted by indiscipline, infighting and inexperience.

Three ins and you're out, you might say.

National has benefited from the opposite, most specifically the discipline shown by those at the top of the party list and surrounding the Prime Minister. John Key has a team with a clear and simple message: "We're getting there, but we're not there yet. So don't mess with it".

The past political month has been dominated by the Oravida story and Judith Collins' Shanghai excursions, plus a John Key golf game and Hekia Parata's willfully inept investigation into the Kohanga Reo Trust. Amongst that there was the story of Cunliffe's use of a trust fund in his run for the Labour leadership. The sums were smaller and the life of the story shorter. Yet it has done much more damage to Labour than the bigger stories have to National. Why? In short, underlying perceptions.

Just ask the taxi driver I had the other day. He said he preferred Labour's policies, but they looked weak as a party. National looked strong and despite his concerns about their lack of concern for the likes of him, that strength seemed likely to tip his vote at this stage. It's an advantage of incumbency, but also the advantage of stability.

After five and a half years, John Key's National Party has runs on the board in tough times. It is regarded widely as competent and clever, which is why the potentially sackable sins of Collins and Parata can be defended and defused. At another time or in another party, either could have been toast. But here and now those failings are considered an anomoly.

For Labour the opposite is true. Every failing seems oh-so typical, every indiscretion a sign of a wider instability. The party has chopped and changed leaders and looked unreliable. After a strong introduction, the impression around Cunliffe now is a lack of trust: Tricky Davey.

So while Cunliffe doesn't deserve all the blame, his claims to not be concerned about his personal preferred PM numbers are rubbish. Both TV polls had him below 10 percent. People aren't at all convinced by him, most especially his "leafy suburbs" comments and funding arrangements. Key remains National's key to success and voters have to see Cunliffe as a potential leader of this proud country if enough of them are to tilt away from the status quo. The onus is on him to be seen and to be seen to be strong. Cunliffe has to first get visible, then get confident and, ultimately, get better.

Key just needs to keep doing what he's doing and avoid getting smug, tired and loose.

A 15+ gap between National and Labour makes it very hard for New Zealand First – even if it decides it wants to change the government – to make the case to its voters. And it's too big a gap to bridge, even if Labour can muster a better turnout amongst its 'missing million'.

Just as was the case a year ago, Labour and the Greens need to find another five percent from somewhere to be properly in the running. They did it in the second half of 2013 as the GCSB and other problems made National look wobbly and insincere. Now, however, the hour is getting late.

Comments (23)

by Andrew Geddis on March 31, 2014
Andrew Geddis

Just ask the taxi driver I had the other day.

Hooray! You're a real journalist, now!!

Joking aside, but ... that anecdote feels truthy to me, too. In fact, it's what I've been saying myself to my wife and various friends. Maybe I should get a job driving taxis?

by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2014
Tim Watkin

I know, right? I can't remember ever using the one-person taxi driver poll of irrelevance before. So now I've made it. I'm sure entire government policies have been built on the platform of "my taxi driver reckons..."

But the thing is it fits with what the polls this year seem to be saying. They gave the centre-left a bit of a look last year, but Labour in particular and the performance of its own people have let it down. Like so many competitions, it's first and foremost about concentrating on your own game and eliminating mistakes.

by Steve on March 31, 2014
Steve

This election is to determine who National's coalition partners will be.

by Danyl Mclauchlan on March 31, 2014
Danyl Mclauchlan

Via Stuff

Sir Roger Douglas helped to keep alive the stereotype of cab drivers being the founts of all political knowledge when he spoke at a funeral service in Wellington yesterday.

The former finance minister told mourners in Kilbirnie that cabbie Garth Harrison was his "special adviser" on economic reforms in the late 1980s and the pair kept in regular touch.

Mr Harrison, who died last Monday aged 87, drove his own cab in Wellington for about 45 years from the mid-1950s. In the late 1980s he edited the newsletter of the Backbone Club, a Labour Party ginger group supporting the reforms of economic advocates such as Sir Roger and Richard Prebble.

 

by Ross on March 31, 2014
Ross

Both TV polls had him below 10 percent.

You say that like it's a disaster. You're possibly too young to remember that Helen Clark, whilst Opposition leader, polled at 2%. She went on to have a long reign as PM. 

by Ian MacKay on March 31, 2014
Ian MacKay

Surely Tim you should avoid the National slogan about the gap between National and Labour? That is First Past the Post rhetoric promoted by Mr Key. It may have escaped your notice Tim but we are in MMP now. Remember that the minor parties can also make a difference.

by Pete George on March 31, 2014
Pete George

Helen Clark's PPM rating started about 6% then dropped as low 2% and fluctuated below 5 from 1993 to 1996 when it suddenly shot up to 17% then rose steeply to over 30%. It then fluctuated mostly in the twenties until Labour won in 1999. 

Cunliffe's sliding results may not be a disaster if he's targeting a win in 2017.

by Richard Aston on March 31, 2014
Richard Aston

The poll of polls has the difference  Nats - Labour/Green at 4.4%. Thats very close , can't see its a certainty by any means Steve.

But it does look like the election will be decided by the minor parties , eg if you add 5-6 % for NZF to the Polls and they form a coalition with Labour/Green then the Nats loose.

Then there is Maori , Mana and the conservatives . The first two will get electorate seats who knows about the third.

Someone must be worried about Kim.Com  what else would motivate the nazi smear campaign , oh yes crappy journalism, maybe. I reckon his party may well activate that large group of non voters to actually vote, but will they vote for the Internet party on the day? Maybe just the shear unpredicatabilty of this election will activate the non voters because there is a chance their vote could make a difference.

Its going to be wild ride.

 

by Richard Aston on March 31, 2014
Richard Aston

"Tim you should avoid the National slogan about the gap between National and Labour? That is First Past the Post rhetoric promoted by Mr Key."

Very good point Ian and it highllights how much media are can be part of the spin process.  I am not aiming that at you Tim, but I know comms people in govt who are bemused at how readiliy journallists will repeat slogans given to them - from all sides with no attempt at critical thinking.

Sorting the propaganda from real communications will be a real challenge in this election.

 

 

 

by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2014
Tim Watkin

Well, ol' timer Ross, I do remember. But that was 1993/94 and I'm writing about this year's election. I'm assuming Labour supporters aren't happy to wait another five years for Cunliffe to make it to the Beehive. Five months from an election, and given where he was when he started, there's nothing good about it.

 

by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2014
Tim Watkin

Richard Aston comment (transplanted from other post):

No sure why you are so sure its all in National's favour .
The Poll of Poll has Nats at 48%  and Labour/Green/NZF at 48%

Yes their are other minor parties that my influence this both ways, Mana, Maori and Conservatives. And much may depend on specific electorate results - especially in the maori electorates. 

Seems its pretty neck and neck at the moment.

The huge non voter pool may well become activated by the shear uncertainty of it all.
Which way will they vote.

May be the extra 5 % you say Labour/Greens need is not that difficult .

by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alan Johnstone comment (transplanted from other post):

"The past political month has been dominated by the Oravida story and Judith Collins' Shanghai excursions, plus a John Key golf game and Hekia Parata's willfully inept investigation into the Kohanga Reo Trust."

And that's the problem for Labour, their failure to set the agenda on items that actually matter to people who might vote for them. Any labour MP that isn't talking about cost of living, inequality, jobless recovery, lack of social mobility should be taken out and shot.

They can't flit about to a new topic, week after week, they must ignore the process issues, and focus on pocket book issues that impact the working and lower middle classes.

If I was being unkind, I'd say the lack of many actual working class mps and the take over of the party by teachers, policy professionals, lawyers and the rainbow groupings is what's killing it, it's lost the pulse on the nation, hence the missing million.

by Ross on March 31, 2014
Ross

Well, ol' timer Ross, I do remember. But that was 1993/94 and I'm writing about this year's election. I'm assuming Labour supporters aren't happy to wait another five years for Cunliffe to make it to the Beehive.

Why assume a wait of 5 years? Not too many governments are elected for three terms...

But the point I was making is that you shouldn't get hung up on poll ratings. Helen's was below the margin of error and therefore she should have been written off as a political wannabe.

by Richard Aston on March 31, 2014
Richard Aston

Tim your comments about Labour's lack of clear agenda setting are well taken. It a shambles really, given the opportunity. 

by Tim Watkin on March 31, 2014
Tim Watkin

Understood Ross, and certainly people did rule out Clark wrongly.

But this close to an election the polls really do matter. I mentioned five years because that's how long it took Clark to go from two percent to winning an election – it takes time to recover so Cunliffe's going to have to turn it around pretty darn quick.

And actually every MMP government so far has been three terms. And many before that.

by Pete George on March 31, 2014
Pete George

"Helen's was below the margin of error"

No it wasn't. The margin of error at 2% (confidence 95%, sample size 1,000) is +/- 0.87.

At 5% it is +/- 1.35 and only at 50% it is +/- 3.1

by BeShakey on March 31, 2014
BeShakey

A significant flaw in the preferred PM question is that its unprompted (i.e. people can give any answer they want). It would be more logical to ask which of the major party leaders they think would be the best PM, or at the very least which current politician. Currently Helen Clark still has a pretty constant presence in the preferred PM rankings (Colmar Brunton has her 7th most preferred, ahead of Grant Robertson, David Shearer, . That's a completely useless piece of information for pollsters to provide, particularly when the reality is all those people would presumably prefer Cunliffe.

This approach would probably give Cunliffe a not insignificant boost from his current position, but I doubt he would get anywhere near Key even with this. And of course Key would get a (small) boost too - the current poll includes Nick Smith, Bill English and Steven Joyce.

by Ross on April 01, 2014
Ross

I mentioned five years because that's how long it took Clark to go from two percent to winning an election – it takes time to recover so Cunliffe's going to have to turn it around pretty darn quick.

 

Well, that's if you value individual poll ratings which I don't. How long was it before David Lange (or John Key) went from Opposition leader to PM? It can happen fairly quickly...

by Ross on April 01, 2014
Ross

Lange was appointed leader of Labour in February 1983 and was elected PM in July 1984. That's a quick transition! Maybe he was helped by the fact that Muldoon had been in power for some time...just as John Key has been. (BTW, I'm not comparing Key to Muldoon, or Cunliffe to Lange.)

by BeShakey on April 01, 2014
BeShakey

I think the point is it can take a long time to move from a very low preferred PM rating to being PM.

The first poll done exclusively after Key had become leader gave him a rating of 24%. Five and a half months after becoming leader (i.e. the same place Cunliffe is now) his rating was in the high 30's.

Personally I suspect the rating is more important to Key (who runs on his personality a lot) than it is for Cunliffe (at least if he's smart and doesn't try to take Key on a NZ's smiliest leader).

by Andrew Osborn on April 01, 2014
Andrew Osborn

http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/oppldr.png

Judging by this chart, it looks like Labour would've done better to stick with Shearer or Goff.

As regards the meteoric rise in the popularity of Clark, one must bear in mind that the perferred leader question is comparative. At the point where she suddenly became popular her opponent was Shipley. So maybe Clark wasn't so much liked as Shipley was disliked more.

 

 

by Tim Watkin on April 01, 2014
Tim Watkin

Hang on Ross, you're changing the goalposts! You said it wasn't a disaster for Cunliffe to be on single digits now because Clark was once on two percent. I said that was five years before Clark became PM, so the comparison only works if you are assume Cunliffe and Labour don't want to win this election and are instead happy to wait as long as Clark did. Otherwise the comparison is meaningless.

Now – having used an individual rating of Clark's to make an argument – you're saying you don't value individual poll ratings. And look at John Key and David Lange as examples of Opposition leaders who quickly became PM.

But even with those new goalposts, I don't see how the Key or Lange examples make the case that Cunliffe's personal polling isn't a problem.

For a start, Key was never on nine percent. As early as 2007 he was ahead of Helen Clark in the 30s. Can't remember David Lange, but I'm pretty confident he was never in single digits as Opposition leader and certainly not six months out from the 1984 election. And you can ignore the individual point if you like and simply observe that the single digit number is lower than when he started and see that his trend line is downwards.

So I'd go back to my original point and say that a leader of the Opposition on single digits six months out from an election is in some trouble.

by Tim Watkin on April 01, 2014
Tim Watkin

That chart does make Goff look pretty good, doesn't it Andrew? But then you realise that the spike upwards was an election campaign, and you'd hope any decent Opposition leader suddenly doing PM debates, announcing policies and generally looking prime ministerial would trend up.

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