‘Poll panic’ denies Little the chance to prove himself

The dramatic resignation of Andrew Little as Labour leader could further damage public confidence in the party, writes Professor Jack Vowles - also one of the organisers of Victoria University of Wellington's Democracy Week.

Andrew Little's resignation as Labour Party leader in the face of low poll numbers has dominated political news throughout the day.

Political parties should be wary of succumbing to ‘poll panic’. A change of leader less than two months out from an election is a high-risk response to a poll slump. The slump could prove to be temporary, particularly because it has taken place before the official campaign that will give Labour more media coverage and attention. Labour’s response may be construed as ‘listening to the people’, but the question remains: is the party listening in the best way and to what potential voters actually consider important?  

These dramatic events could further damage public confidence in the Labour Party, members of the senior leadership of which reputedly backed Little at the weekend and then withdrew that backing, apparently after two more polls that contained exactly the same information as before. Whether this makes people more or less likely to vote for the Labour Party, or vote at all, remains an open question.

Is Labour's low polling a reflection on Little’s leadership? In part, it may be. Little is not the best soundbite performer. These fleeting television appearances still provide the best opportunity a leader of the opposition has to project not just their positions but also their personality to the widest possible audience. Grant Robertson is by far the best Labour performer in this territory. Despite her relative popularity, new leader Jacinda Ardern is an unknown quantity to many people. She comes across as likeable, but her mettle remains largely untested, particularly under pressure. With more exposure after the beginning of the official campaign, an opposition leader has their chance to shine — or not.

History is not always a guide to future events but we cannot ignore it. In 1990, Geoffrey Palmer stood down as Labour leader only a few weeks before the election. Mike Moore stepped in, but Labour still lost badly. In 1978, widely disparaged Labour leader Bill Rowling’s strong campaign overcame poor polling numbers to almost beat National: indeed, Labour did beat National in terms of votes, but not seats. In 1996, under Helen Clark, Labour was polling even worse than now. Clark had also been disparaged for poor leadership and polling numbers and only just held on after a leadership challenge. She also ran a strong campaign that helped bring Labour back up to 28 percent, almost in reach of government. Labour won in 1999, and she became one of our most highly respected Prime Ministers.

Whatever the result of the 2017 election may be, like Palmer, but unlike Clark and Rowling, Andrew Little has not been given the chance to prove himself when it really counts.

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