Dunne Speaks: Labour's High Water Mark
If I were still a member of the Labour Party I would be feeling a little concerned after this week’s Colmar Brunton public opinion poll. Not because the poll suggested Labour is going to lose office any time soon – it did not – nor because it showed other parties doing better – they are not – but more because it builds on the trend of other recent polls of consistently ebbing support for the Labour Party.
The most worrying thing for Labour about this poll is that it takes the party back to almost where it was in the public standing before the advent of Covid19 nearly eighteen months ago. At that time, Labour looked as though it would have a real fight on its hands to retain office at the 2020 election, no matter the fate of its support partners. Of course, Covid19 changed all that and Labour went on to win a stunning victory on its own, on the back of its handling of the Covid19 response last year.
However, this week’s poll confirms the trend of recent polls that that surge in Labour’s Covid19 support last year has now evaporated. Moreover, unlike last year, not only was there no boost in Labour’s support during the recent Level 4 lockdown, but it actually declined a few percent in that time. As well, the Prime Minister’s personal support – so critical a factor in Labour’s 2017 and 2020 election successes – is also falling. While she still remains more popular than her party (just) her personal support is now falling at a faster rate than her party’s is, despite (or maybe because of) her daily sermons to the nation.
Now we all know polls are but snapshots in time and that it is unwise to become too fixated on their individual numbers. It is more the trend that matters. On that basis, Labour’s halcyon days of last year are well and truly over.
The lockdowns and other measures that contributed so much to Labour’s 2020 election success are no longer as popular with voters. In fact, their continuation is now costing the party public support. And, with mounting criticism of the MIQ system and frustration at the slow pace of our reintegration into the world, that support will track further downwards over the period ahead. That in turn will increase the focus on the Greens – largely forgotten since the election – to retain and build their support, because their fortunes will become increasingly critical to Labour’s prospects of leading a government after the next election.
Worse for Labour, it does not yet have a stellar record of achievement in other key policy areas to bolster its flagging support. The housing crisis is worse than ever, with house prices rising around 60% since Labour came to office. Shortages of construction materials and labour brought on by Covid19 uncertainties have exacerbated the problem and seem likely to slow the rate of new home construction for some time. Likewise, Covid19 has made addressing social inequality that much more difficult, and poverty rates remain high. Even climate change policy has stalled – despite it still being proclaimed as this government’s “nuclear free moment”.
None of that is likely to turn around any time soon, meaning that Labour has reached its high tide in public support. The burgeoning question now for Labour is how far that tide is likely to run out over the coming two years before the next election. Given the amount it has already borrowed as part of its Covid19 response, the options for significantly further boosting public spending are low, meaning Labour has few other options left than working its way through things as they stand. Given that, retaining even current levels of public support, let alone increasing them, will become a major challenge over the next couple of years.
However, the situation is not quite as simple or inevitable as it may appear. The steady decline in Labour’s fortunes, making it nigh inevitable that it will need to rely far more heavily on the Greens than it has done since 2017 to obtain the minimum 48% share of the party vote needed to remain in government, does not of itself mean that a change of government is imminent or even likely.
The National/ACT bloc remains well short of the numbers required to form a government. At the same time, the group of voters who will not state their preference, or support parties not represented in Parliament, or do not vote at all, is remaining relatively constant at around 8-10 percent. What seems to be happening at present is that National and ACT are reshuffling support between themselves rather than growing their share of the cake from the last election.
But, even if the National/ACT bloc can boost its overall support to the levels needed to form a government, problems remain. Current trends show a narrowing of the gap between National and ACT, meaning that any future government they may form is likely to be very evenly split between National and ACT members. Potentially, that would make the dynamics of coalition management more difficult than in a situation where one party is more dominant. Middle ground National supporters could find the more extreme parts of its agenda a resurgent ACT would insist on pursuing difficult to swallow, while ACT supporters would expect far more of their agenda to be adopted than National would ever find tolerable.
Overall, the message from recent polls is that we are quickly returning to a politics as usual situation. The days of the Covid19 political dividend are over, even while its social and economic influences remain. The more traditional divides and expectations of New Zealand politics are being restored, making 2023 a likely vastly different political landscape from last year.
Now all that is needed is the sensible moderator to make it work effectively.