Opinion: According to an average of the opinion polls, the National/ACT bloc has held a small, but steady lead over Labour and the Greens since March last year in the race to form the next government. That lead, which has never been dominant, looked to be moving at the end of last year more strongly towards National/ACT, but has pulled back sharply since the start of the year and the advent of Labour’s new leadership. Even so, National/ACT still have their noses ever so slightly in front in the government-formation race, but it is now too close to call.

There are two ways of looking at these averages. The first is that Labour under the new Prime Minister is clawing back support lost earlier to National and the Greens, and, if the trend of the past few weeks is maintained, Labour and the Greens will soon overtake National and ACT. Already, Labour, according to three recent polls, is outpolling National by an average of just over one percentage point. But while Labour is gaining ground, the Greens have been lagging, although a recent poll suggesting that it had dropped close to the 5 percent threshold looks to be an outlier at this stage.

The second view is that though Labour (especially) and the Greens have made up lost ground, they are still behind National and ACT – just – and that this is as good as it will get for them. According to this scenario, as the year proceeds, Labour will again get bogged down by the things that cost it support last year – such as the under-performing health system and its yet-to-deliver reform process – and will shed support accordingly. Add to that the deteriorating economy and the multi-billion dollar hit of the cyclones, and it will be all downhill for the Government from here.

There is one other factor to consider – leadership. Despite the political parties’ liking for promoting strong leadership, New Zealand elections have rarely been decided on leadership alone. The last election was a striking exception with Jacinda Ardern’s leadership during the early days of the pandemic being a decisive factor in Labour’s victory. At the time, the general wisdom was that was a one-off occurrence that could not be repeated, a conclusion that Ardern’s rapid fall in popularity after the second lockdown appeared to validate.

Yet, there are those suggesting Hipkins may achieve a similar feat this year, on the back of the cyclone response. While possible, it seems unlikely. In 2020, Ardern’s jump in the polls was dramatic and immediate, not dissimilar to what happened when she took over Labour leadership a few weeks before the 2017 election. Although Labour’s support has jumped after Hipkins’ elevation, the rise is nowhere as sharp as with Ardern. With a diverse range of issues on the horizon, unlike the overwhelming dominance of the pandemic response three years ago, it will be much harder for Hipkins to sustain the momentum he has generated so far. And the polls keep showing very clearly that the rising cost-of-living – with food prices increasing at the fastest rate since 1989 – is still the main public concern, with no real signs of any improvement.

Hipkins leaves National playing catch-up
Christopher Luxon absent as Chris Hipkins steps into the floodlights
National is starting to give voters something to think about

An unusual factor in the leadership aspect is the performance of Christopher Luxon as Opposition leader. Given Labour’s annus horribilis of 2022, and the fact that none of those problems have yet gone away, National should be at least 5-10 percentage points ahead of Labour, instead of the mere 1-2 percent lead it had enjoyed until recently but has now lost.

There have been occasions in the past where Opposition leaders have rated way below their parties, but generally it has not mattered. Throughout 1990, Jim Bolger languished in single figures in the preferred prime minister stakes, but still became prime minister that year, because his party won a landslide victory against a massively unpopular Labour government. Similarly, before the 1999 election, Helen Clark was doing worse than her party in the polls but still became prime minister, because of disillusionment with the Shipley National government. 

Overall, the polls have been remarkably stable over the past year or so. Labour’s support slumped from October 2021 and is only now showing signs of recovery. National’s slow but steady gains during 2022 look to have ended.

Luxon may yet defy the polls as Bolger and Clark did, later this year, but he starts from a much lower party support threshold, which, at the very least, raises some questions. Add to that poll findings that voters view Hipkins far more favourably, and Luxon’s identity problem, which has shown no sign of going away, becomes much more acute.

There is another element in the polls that cannot be overlooked. The percentage of votes likely to go to fringe parties that probably won’t make it into Parliament has been rising steadily in recent months. In part, this explains National’s failure to gain more traction because these parties are to the right, and picking up voters that might more normally be expected to vote National.

Except for New Zealand First possibly, they are unlikely to cross the threshold to win seats in Parliament. But they will not be without influence on the overall election result. Because their votes – potentially up to 7 percent of the total – will be discarded from the final party vote count and list seat allocation, the percentage of votes allocated to parties crossing the threshold will be adjusted accordingly, which will influence the result.

Overall, the polls have been remarkably stable over the past year or so. Labour’s support slumped from October 2021 and is only now showing signs of recovery. National’s slow but steady gains during 2022 look to have ended. Though Labour is likely to face heavy economic weather as winter bites, which may temper its recovery, National cannot rely on this to regain its lost momentum.

Although Luxon will not lose the election for National, on current performance he is looking more and more unlikely to win it for them. The blunt truth is that although he has rebuilt the party since becoming leader, he has still not given wavering voters a compelling reason to vote for it – a point the opinion polls are now brutally reinforcing.

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