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Labour must make a bold, unpredictable move to win next election

'While the Government’s prospects appear grim, it cannot yet be written off.' Photo: Marc Daalder

In the Clark and Key governments a year out from their third election win, all the indicators were good but today's governing party faces an increasingly uphill battle

Opinion: With just over a year until the next election and the ending of virtually all Covid-19 restrictions, New Zealand’s 53rd Parliament is entering the home straight. Speculation is now turning to whether the Ardern Labour-led government can emulate the Clark and Key/English governments which preceded it and secure a third term in office.

Public opinion polls present an uncertain picture. While most have shown National ahead of Labour for some months, the overall picture as to whom will govern is much less clear.

Polls are at best a snapshot of a particular moment. They often reflect a specific context and need to be seen as a sequence over time to get a full sense of their relevance. Even that may not show the full picture. Comparing poll trends with other similar periods in the electoral cycle may offer a better sense of what is happening on which to base future predictions.

On that basis, it is worth looking at the situations of the Clark and Key governments a year out from their third election, at a similar point to the Ardern government today.

In October 2004, a year before the 2005 election, and with the fallout from the controversial foreshore and seabed debate still fresh in the public mind, Labour was leading National by seven percentage points, according to the average of polls taken that month. That month’s 3News TNS poll showed Prime Minister Helen Clark with about a 30 percentage point lead over the National leader, Don Brash, as preferred Prime Minister. The UMR poll was reporting that New Zealanders believed the country was heading in the right direction by a margin of 22 percentage points. Even so, the Labour-led government faced a difficult battle over the ensuing 12 months before it formed a government for a third term.

The pattern was broadly similar for the Key government in 2013. According to the average of polls for October 2013, National was leading Labour by seven percentage points. TVNZ’s Colmar Brunton poll gave Prime Minister Key a 30 percentage point lead over David Cunliffe, Labour’s then new leader, as preferred Prime Minister. The Fairfax-Ipsos poll that month showed New Zealanders believed the country was heading in the right direction by a margin of 20 percentage points. However, unlike Labour in 2004-05, Key’s National-led government had a relatively comfortable run through to winning its third term in September 2014.

Will a desperate Labour be prepared to follow President Joe Biden’s recent lead and commit to wiping student loan debt altogether, if that is what it takes to retain office? Or will it be a cut in the rate of GST? 

What is clear from both these results is that a platform for election victory was set up about a year before the election itself. In both cases, it was built on three pillars – a healthy lead for the main party of government over its major rival; strong preference for the incumbent Prime Minister over the Opposition leader as preferred Prime Minister; and, perhaps most importantly, a clear sense the country was heading in the right direction. But as Labour’s close-run 2005 result shows, even these favourable conditions are not guarantors of election victory. That year, Labour still had to pull out of the hat making student loan repayments interest free to get over the line on election day.

How is the present government doing based on the same measures? The current trend of National holding a slight lead over Labour has been repeated in the polls reported so far this month, with National holding an average lead over Labour of slightly more than 2 percentage points. Ardern outpolls Luxon as preferred Prime Minister, according to this month’s Roy Morgan poll, but by just 11 percentage points, not the 30 percentage point margins Clark and Key enjoyed over their rivals at similar points in 2005 and 2013. And, unlike 2004 and 2005, where polls strongly showed the country was heading in the right direction, this month’s Taxpayers' Union Curia poll shows there was an eight percentage point increase in voters believing the country is heading in the wrong direction compared with last month.

Based on these indicators, the Ardern government looks to be in deep political trouble. When the sharply rising cost of living – which all the polls show is the major issue concerning New Zealanders – is added in, the Government’s position looks parlous. The Prime Minister’s admission to TV3’s AM Show this week that “it is going to take a bit of time” before food prices start to come down is hardly reassuring and will not boost flagging public confidence. Securing re-election next year will be an increasingly uphill battle.

But while the Government’s prospects appear grim, it cannot yet be written off. As always, there is the possibility of a dramatic surge of optimism in the country’s future over the next year, to the Government’s benefit, although it is most unlikely. The uncertain international political situation, the ever-present prospect of the return of the pandemic in a more serious form, and the Prime Minister’s admission that the rising cost of living will be with us for some time yet seem certain to confirm the generally pessimistic public mood. Even the magic touch that was the Prime Minister’s leadership is waning, with her personal ratings falling steadily throughout this year.

However, assuming the poll gap between Labour and National does not blow out completely and remains relatively close over the next year, a bold move, akin to Labour’s student loans policy in 2005, cannot be ruled out. And it may be student loans all over again. Will a desperate Labour be prepared to follow President Joe Biden’s recent lead and commit to wiping student loan debt altogether, if that is what it takes to retain office? Or will it be a cut in the rate of GST? While Labour appears increasingly downbeat about its prospects of retaining office next year, it will not have given up hope altogether, and like its 2005 predecessor, will not be above a bold and unpredictable move to secure victory.

Meanwhile, whatever happens at election time, many Labour MPs will not be returning to Parliament so will be starting to dust off their curricula vitae as they contemplate new and uncertain futures outside Parliament.