Opinion: It is too soon to start writing the political obituaries for the current Labour-led government. The average of recent public opinion polls suggests that were an election to be held now, Labour, with the support of the Greens, would retain office by the barest of margins.
This is despite the clear and steady waning in Labour’s support over the last six months, the seemingly increasing public frustration at its sermonising and inability to admit it has ever made a mistake, and National’s reinvigoration under its current leadership. And it would be foolish to assume that Labour is going to just let the tide roll out to electoral defeat next year, without any sort of political fight.
Although the clock is ticking ever louder – the next election is just eighteen months away – there are still opportunities for Labour to regain the political initiative to arrest the steady decline in its support now underway.
For a start, there are two Budgets to come – this year’s Budget due on May 19, and next year’s – which will provide plenty of scope both to reset the government’s political and economic direction and provide some sweeteners to alleviate the pain of steadily increasing living costs along the way.
According to the Budget Policy Statement, $10 billion has already been set aside from those two Budgets for new spending. And, as a single party majority government, Labour still has complete control of the political and Parliamentary agendas like no other government since the early 1990s.
Even the best organised and most highly motivated Opposition can only sit by and watch in such circumstances, and hope at most for a few crumbs from government fumbles falling its way. But National is not yet that Opposition. While it is steadily improving, it still faces some mighty internal issues, like, for example, how its culls out the political deadwood in its current ranks and attracts exciting new talent.
No longer is Labour seen as sweeping all before it as it did in the early days of the Covid-19 response in 2020. Its confidence and self-assurance look sapped, and the public mood is changing.
What is clear from the polling data is that Labour’s best days are behind it, so a repeat of the 2020 result is out of the question. Labour will not win a majority of seats in the next Parliament, meaning the next election will be a genuine dogfight to the end.
No longer is Labour seen as sweeping all before it as it did in the early days of the Covid-19 response in 2020. Its confidence and self-assurance look sapped, and the public mood is changing. People are becoming not only more impatient, but unlike the last two years they, and increasingly the hitherto fawning media, are also becoming more outspoken in their criticism of what is going on.
Labour’s mainspring looks severely damaged, if not yet broken altogether, and without a change in focus, the likelihood of electoral defeat begins to loom.
But, as the polls show, all is not yet irretrievably lost. While carrying on the way it has been will not help Labour’s cause, there is still time for a major political reset – perhaps using the retreat from Covid-19 as the reason – to put the Government back on course for the next election.
The starting point for such a reset needs to be a clear-headed assessment of future priorities, and what can be reasonably achieved before the effective pre-election shutdown on government activities kicks in around June next year. No longer should the Government be focusing on what it would like to do in that time – the time for such wishful thinking and self-indulgence has long passed – but rather on a much more hard-headed determination of what it can and should be doing over the next year or so.
For a government with a growing reputation for being good on the rhetoric and promise but woeful on the delivery, this will be a huge challenge, but it is vital. A critical component of any government reset now must be getting things done, not more mere promises, and warm sentiments.
Pet projects or controversial policies dear to the Labour Party’s heart, but to no one else’s, should be abandoned. The Three Waters plan which continues to stir up controversy across the country is an obvious example. While there is broad agreement that a better way of managing water resources and funding infrastructure development needs to be found, the plan is being hampered by Labour’s blinkered and dogged insistence on centralised governance arrangements. Unless Labour is prepared to drop that aspect of the plan, it should be parked.
The health reforms and changes to the way Oranga Tamariki works have the potential to go the same way.
What Labour must learn is that, if it wants to retain office next year, it needs at this point in the electoral cycle to be focusing more on what needs to be done, than on what it would like to do. The announcement earlier this week of a public consultation process later this year on possible co-governance arrangements suggests the government is grasping this point, although the test will be whether people see the process as genuine, and not an effective rubber stamp.
But even if Labour was of a mind to undertake a genuine policy reset and proved capable of doing so (massive challenges in themselves given its performance to date) its fate at the next election does not rest entirely in its own hands.
The polling data suggests that a major determinant of who governs after the next election will be how well the Greens do at election time. Although they have been represented in Parliament continuously as a single party since 1999 and were part of the Alliance for three years before that, they remain an electoral enigma. They consistently poll better between elections than they perform on election day and have been the least successful of all the smaller parties when it comes to time spent as a government support partner.
At present, they are tracking at around 9 percent in the polls, or 13 MPs, were that to be translated into seats in Parliament. Maintaining, or even increasing, that level of support at election time will be critical to Labour’s chances of leading the next government so long as Labour’s support does not fall further from current poll levels. And that still assumes the Greens defy their electoral history of doing better in opinion polls than they do at election time.
It is generally accepted that the minimum combined party vote a bloc needs to form a government is 48 percent. Therefore, Labour may even need to look to Te Pāti Māori to join it and the Greens to get across the line.
Currently, Te Pāti Māori is polling at about the 1 to 2 seat level. On the current polling average, Labour, the Greens, and Te Pāti Māori sit at just over 49 percent, enough to form a government, but still very close, and assuming Te Pāti Māori wants to play ball. Te Pāti Māori has been playing a clever game of late of appearing to keep its wider options open, while looking to bolster its party vote support amongst its core constituency.
National and ACT are almost irrelevant in this process. Elections are usually a referendum on the performance of the Government, and only rarely the state of the Opposition. If a government is unpopular enough the harsh reality is it will lose, regardless of the state of the parties opposing it. While National still has some way to go and is several key policy announcements short of looking like a viable government in waiting, that will count for little if the popular mood is for a change of government.
Running the line that the “other side” is not up to or ready to be in government is one of the weakest lines a government can run in its own defence. Nearly as bad is blaming all a government’s difficulties on its predecessor. That might work for the first year or so but is irrelevant after a government has been through its first Budget cycle and been able to set its own policy and spending priorities. To still be doing so, the way the current government does, after nearly five years, simply defies both logic and credibility. All it does is draw attention to its own failings, not those of its predecessor.
What is clear is that more of the same will no longer work for Labour. It urgently needs to move on from Covid-19 and its earlier awkward coalition with New Zealand First and spell out clearly and precisely its pre-election priorities. The Budget due on May 19 and how this year’s $6 billion allowance for new spending is allocated, will show whether a such policy reset is underway. That, in turn, will determine whether Labour’s poll numbers firm, or continue to decline.
Meanwhile, like any Opposition, National and ACT will have to keep sitting on the side lines, watching, and waiting – for a little while longer at least.