John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Collapse less likely for Labour

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Yesterday National came up with a wages compensation package for businesses directly affected by the Rena oil spill. Photo / APN
Yesterday National came up with a wages compensation package for businesses directly affected by the Rena oil spill. Photo / APN

Fate may yet prove otherwise, but Labour has increasing cause to believe its worst fears are no longer going to materialise during this month's election campaign.

It now seems unlikely Labour is going to suffer a catastrophic collapse in its support of the kind which afflicted National when it was in Opposition in 2002.

National's share of the vote slumped to a paltry 21 per cent at that year's election, compared to the 30.5 per cent the party registered in 1999 and the 34 per cent it secured in the election prior to that.

Labour's support fluctuated around the 30 to 33 per cent level for most of the just-completed parliamentary term. But it began to nose-dive in August and dropped below 26 per cent in one poll.

More recent polls now see backing for the party recovering around the 30 per cent mark. Labour will also be heartened by indications the Greens have hit a brick wall around the 10 per cent level.

The polls still show a ginormous gap between National and Labour. But Opposition leader Phil Goff's turbo-charged start to the election campaign means he can now concentrate on the Herculean task of closing that gap, rather than having to devote considerable energy and policy to shoring up Labour's core vote.

Tonight's One News-Colmar Brunton poll and tomorrow's Herald-DigiPoll survey will be scrutinised intensely as their survey periods take in Labour's surprise announcement of its plan to raise the age of eligibility for NZ Super from 65 to 67, plus last Monday's leaders' debate between Goff and Prime Minister John Key.

Labour will now have its fingers crossed that the combination of Goff's assured performance so far, wall-to-wall media coverage of Labour's policies and the party's sharper advertising will have paid early dividends with a hike in its support which changes the whole complexion of the election.

If that does not happen, Labour should not despair. Any positive shift in voter perceptions of Labour may take time to translate into altered voting intentions. One question is how raising the retirement age plus compulsory super contributions have gone down with Labour's traditional constituency of low to middle-income earners. There is no guarantee that the reception will have been positive.

Another big question for Labour is whether Winston Peters will start to gain traction and make inroads into National's "soft" vote. He is getting more media coverage, but is still being pigeonholed as an also-ran.

Peters' problem is the absence of a red-hot issue which he can call his own and his alone. There are signs, however, that he is going back to the future by flailing big business over what he terms "corporate greed".

He was close to his antagonistic best at a Business New Zealand election forum last Monday, lambasting his audience for awarding themselves "outrageous" pay and perks and moving operations offshore with barely a twinge of conscience.

Yesterday - an otherwise quiet day in the campaign most notable perhaps for National coming up with a stop-gap wages compensation package for businesses directly affected by the Rena oil spill - saw Peters arguing for directors of failed finance companies to be placed on prison work gangs. It was typical Peters in his aligning himself with the powerless against the powerful. But as far as busting through the 5 per cent threshold, it all looks a bit too little and a shade too late.

- NZ Herald

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