Labour knows it can’t count on outright victory

Despite the Government's pedestrian performance prior to Covid-19, the election now looks like Labour's to lose. But National, currently bleeding profusely, dazed and stumbling, is not out of this contest just yet, says Peter Dunne

From this weekend, there are just seventeen weeks until the General Election scheduled on September 19. As time passes, all the indications are that the election will proceed on that date as originally announced by the Prime Minister earlier in the year, the onset of Covid-19 notwithstanding.

When Parliament resumes next week, after its post-Budget recess, it has probably just 27 sitting days before the 52nd Parliament is dissolved for the election, and just nine sitting days until the onset of what is known as the period of restraint – the time before an election when by convention governments do not make major appointments, or undertake significant advertising campaigns promoting government policy.

Government business in the House will from now on be very much about tidying up what legislation needs to be passed before the election and otherwise battening down the electoral hatches. 

For MPs who are retiring and those yet to realise they are about to be retired, the sun is starting to set quickly on their Parliamentary careers.

Overall, the die has been largely cast. With the introduction of the Budget last week, the Government has played virtually all its big cards this side of the election. No significant new policies can, or will be, introduced before election day. Any significant policy commitments from 2017 not already on a path to implementation therefore will not see the light of day during the term of this Parliament. And those MPs yet to make a mark are now unlikely to have the time to do so before they next face the voters.

While there might be bold new policies promised during the election campaign that grab the public imagination – such as Labour’s interest-free student loans in 2005 – the rapidly deteriorating economic situation as a result of the global pandemic make that less likely this time.

So, the campaign will be fought and determined pretty much on the voters’ assessment of how the respective parties have performed over the least three years.

Here is where, according to the latest private and public opinion polls, Labour starts with a massive advantage.  Like every other government in the world – even the Trump Administration – it has won considerable support for the way in which it handled the Covid-19 outbreak, and, consistent with the theme of people flocking to support incumbent governments in time of crisis, it is now riding a massive wave of public support, that will be almost impossible to reverse over the next 17 weeks until the election.

Its pretty pedestrian performance over the balance of the term, the serial incompetence of a number of its Ministers, and the trend line that was beginning to emerge earlier in March were suggesting National might have been a good prospect to pull off a dramatic election win ...that has all vanished now.

The election has become very much Labour’s to lose, while National has been left trying desperately to minimise the collateral damage.

However, things are not always predictable in politics and not even the most die-hard Labour supporter should be calling the result just yet.

Strange things do happen, and however unlikely it may seem, National, currently bleeding profusely, dazed and stumbling, is not out of this contest just yet.

This is where National’s only real chance lies – to develop a starker economic narrative that persuades the electorate that while Labour was the party of the crisis, National is the party of the future.

They, like Labour, know that political surges can come and go very quickly – Labour’s rise and fall last year after the Christchurch Mosque attacks is a recent case in point – and they will be frantically (and perhaps over-optimistically) searching for any signs of a repeat now.

For its part, though, Labour will be just as well aware of the events of last year and determined not to see history repeat itself.

Therefore, expect Labour to keep playing Covid19 response card as long as possible. It is fertile ground to keep reminding people how well things went during the lockdowns (in other words how well the Prime Minister and by distant extension the Labour Party did then).

To that end, do not be surprised if at election time vestiges of the crisis – perhaps a delay to the establishment of the trans-Tasman bubble, or the country still being at Alert Level 1 – remain in place to keep reminding people that Covid19 was – and is – a crisis that the Prime Minister and Labour handled well, and that they are still needed for that reason alone.

This will be especially important as the economic consequences continue to bite hard, and, if, as history suggests is more than likely, Treasury’s forecasts about business failures and unemployment prove far too optimistic.

This is where National’s only real chance lies – to develop a starker economic narrative that persuades the electorate that while Labour was the party of the crisis, National is the party of the future.

It would be the better economic manager from here on and has the better picture of the economic transformation that will be required over the years to come. National needs to focus on what lies ahead, not what has gone before.  But its performance to date does not inspire confidence in that regard.

Much has been said about National’s leadership. While it is certainly becoming a heavy anchor on the Party’s progress, it will not stop it in the end coming to office if the time is right, as the successes of unpopular Opposition leaders like Jim Bolger in 1990 and Helen Clark in 1999 show.

Despite the heights of recent polls, realistically, the best election outcome either Labour or National can hope for is to poll around 45 to 48 percent and rely on support partners to form a government.

Although Simon Bridges has hardly helped his or the Party’s cause in recent weeks, his failings have been amplified by the Prime Minister’s performance.

A forced leadership change now, as the Prime Minister will remember full well, is not necessarily bad news for a Party on the eve of an election.  However, the difference between her ascent and the current situation is that for some time she had been seen as the obvious eventual solution to Labour’s then leadership problems – it just happened much sooner than everyone expected.  

Until now, Bridges had been expected to limp on until the election, perhaps surprising along the way by doing a little better than expected, and then be replaced by a fresh face  (such as Todd Muller, or maybe even Christopher Luxon) after the election. The dramatic fall in National’s support seems to have precipitated an earlier move, but, whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to create a wave of support akin to the extraordinary response to Jacinda Ardern’s elevation in 2017.

Despite the heights of recent polls, realistically, the best election outcome either Labour or National can hope for is to poll around 45 to 48 percent and rely on support partners to form a government.

No party has ever won an outright majority of votes under MMP, and it was also a rare occurrence under the old First Past the Post system, last happening in 1951. Even when parties have been running high and an outright majority has looked a possibility under MMP (Labour in 2002, and National in 2014 come to mind) voters have always baulked at making that commitment, and there is no reason to believe they will act any differently in 2020.

At first glance, Labour is far better placed in this situation than National – it has established partners New Zealand First and the Greens with whom it has worked since 2017 and would no doubt be keen to continue after the coming election. The problem is that neither is polling convincingly at present.

At 2.7 percent party support in the latest polls and no electorate seat to fall back on to get across the threshold, not to mention the ongoing Serious Fraud Office investigation, New Zealand First appears in a parlous state. Yet, traditionally, it polls far better in actual elections than it ever does in opinion polls, so it cannot be written off – yet.

The Greens, on 5.5 percent and also without an electorate seat, have the opposite problem. They invariably do far better in opinion polls than they do in elections, so they are getting dangerously close to political oblivion.

National has just ACT to rely onto get into government. While ACT’s vote share seems to be rising and may net another one or two seats, it is unlikely that will be enough, particularly if anything like the current situation remains. Pretenders like the TOP Party, the New Conservatives, and even the Maori Party are unlikely to have any impact this time around.

Labour will therefore return to Parliament next week in a more buoyant state than it has been for some months. Not only has it been seen to have handled the Covid19 crisis well, but also the Budget appears to have been reasonably well received, leaving many of its nonentity backbenchers who may have been feeling their days were numbered with a fresh spring in their steps. National, on the other hand, will be all gritted teeth and forced smiles.

But behind the facades some constants remain. Notwithstanding its successes of recent weeks, as much as this is the Government of Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson, it is still the Government where Phil Twyford, David Clark, Kelvin Davis, Iain Lees-Galloway and Shane Jones are considered good enough to be senior Ministers.

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