Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Could National actually thrash Labour again in 2014?

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Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Natalie Slade
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Natalie Slade

By and large political commentators are expecting this year's election result will be a 'cliffhanger' and that the campaign will be carried out on the basis that public support for National will be very similar to that for the Labour-Greens bloc.

But what if National forges ahead of the left bloc in the polls and ends up decisively 'winning' the election? It's a prospect worth considering. According to the latest poll, National is on nearly 50% public support, with the Labour-Green bloc on about 42% - see Vernon Small's National on wave of optimism - poll. See also, Small's report, Baby bonus divides voters.

It's only one poll of course, although the previous poll put out by Roy Morgan had National up 3.5% to 47% (Newswire: National regains lead in latest poll).

Tracy Watkins elaborates on what this latest poll means for Labour in her article Poll shows Labour under pressure to make impact. She argues that 'the party is squeezed for time to turn things around', and that although Labour's 'baby bonus' 'grabbed attention, it does not yet seem to have got much traction'.

Watkins also points to 'the overwhelming belief among voters that the country is on the right track, with 63.7 per cent agreeing, compared with just 35.6 per cent who disagree'. This is the theme of today's Dominion Post editorial, Change in government not yet wanted, which makes some very good arguments about why National is currently doing well. The Government's economic achievements or messages appear to be resonating with the public.

The newspaper is likely correct that this 'election will be fought on hip-pocket issues', but there are additional factors currently in National's favour. Even on social issues, it could be argued that things are getting better - see Simon Collins' article, State of our nation: Crime, jobs and our kids - things are looking up. And on a more superficial level, John Key continues to receive positive publicity that will resonate with many - see, for example, the Herald's recent Key defends joining beer pong game at Big Gay Out.

For more on the latest polls, see Greg Presland's blogpost The Fairfax Ipsos Poll result. He points out that 'Just before the last election Fairfax had National on 54% which is significantly higher than its election result of 47.21%', and therefore this latest Fairfax poll might also be exaggerating National's support.

David Farrar has some further information on who is most likely and least likely to support National - see: Fairfax poll breakdowns.

In addition to opinion polls, it's always useful to keep an eye on some of the predictive stock on iPredict. At the moment, traders are growing more confident of a National victory, with predictions of a National-led government after the election currently at 61%. Conversely, the chance of a Labour-led government is currently about 40%. The forecast party votes are the following: National, 44%; Labour, 33%; and Greens, 10%.

Regardless of the accuracy or otherwise of current polls, there's certainly a consensus that National is well ahead of Labour. Recently, Labour leader David Cunliffe declared that Labour intends to turn this around - see Claire Trevett's Cunliffe sets benchmark for election.

There will certainly be a lot of debate this year about whether National will have any sort of 'mandate' to form a coalition first if it is the largest party. It's useful therefore that Rob Salmond has been researching other countries that use proportional representation to see to what extent the party with the highest vote forms the government - see: Moral mandates in Europe, and Data on moral mandates in Europe. Salmond shows that in Northern Europe, especially, it's not uncommon for the party with the highest vote not to be part of the government.

Labour's problems

Some commentators believe that Labour is still suffering from a lack of unity, coherence and renewal. For example, in Matthew Hooton's weekend column, Cunliffe's four fails (paywalled), it is suggested that divisions are crippling the party. He points to the recent departure of Cunliffe's head of staff, Wendy Brandon, as being significant, saying that she 'is said to have found it difficult to reconcile Mr Cunliffe's supporters - including Labour's now radicalised membership base - with a caucus that remains overwhelmingly hostile to him. Her absence the week of Mr Cunliffe's State of the Nation address was blamed for his embarrassing misrepresentation of his own policy. She was also suspected by some of wanting to set up Grant Robertson, still the caucus's preferred leader, to take the fall for an election loss'.

Brandon's departure from Cunliffe's office is covered best in Vernon Small's article Cunliffe seeks chief of staff. In particular, he says that 'Those who worked closely with her said she was frustrated by managing the competing agendas of the caucus and the party, which in November saw uneasy compromises hammered out at the party's annual conference over the state pension age and free trade talks'.

A previous blogpost by Chris Trotter is also instructive in this regard - see: Incomplete Victory: David Cunliffe's position in Labour's caucus looks increasingly shaky. Trotter argues that 'the Old Guard are slowly but surely imprisoning Cunliffe in a right-wing policy framework designed to damage his left-wing credentials in the eyes of trade union affiliates, Labour's rank-and-file and, eventually, the voters'.

There continues to be angst about Labour's failure to renew its caucus to the extent to which National has been. This will be a concern in the lead up to the party's list selection process. For more on this, see Cameron Slater's Renewal the Labour Party way - Darien Fenton.

Shane Jones' supermarket win for Labour

Not all is negative at the moment for Labour. Indeed, according to John Armstrong in the weekend, 'This week was Labour's by a country mile'. The Shane Jones campaign against the supermarket trade has huge potential to lift Labour's support. As Armstrong argues, Jones has now 'entrenched Labour as the White Knight on the frontline of the Supermarket Wars. It's all about repositioning Labour more firmly in voters' minds as the consumer's friend who will confront big business greed rather than being a corporate lap-dog like National. It's about ensuring the economic debate at this year's election concentrates on prices, wages, income inequality and child poverty - not economic growth forecasts, Budget surpluses and debt repayment where National has a huge advantage' - see: Labour owes Jones for changing game with voters.

Tracy Watkins also concentrates on the rising importance of Shane Jones for Labour in her column Once were worriers, now warriors. She says that 'Since his reinvention during the Labour leadership race, Jones has had a new lease of life as a standout star of the front bench. He has been running rings around some of his colleagues who branded him as lazy'. Her column emphasizes the strategically important role that Jones is playing in cultivating a stronger friendship with Winston Peters. She says that 'If Labour needs Mr Peters after the next election, it will have to work at it. The likely conduit in that relationship will be Jones'.

Watkins also draws some interesting parallels between Jones and Peters, and paints his supermarket campaign as being Petersesque: 'Jones' ferocious assault on one of New Zealand's two big supermarket chains this week was vintage Peters; the liberal use of colourful words such as dingoes, the indignant roar of a scandal under way, the crusade launched under the protection of parliamentary privilege. It had shades of the Winebox scandal a generation or more ago'.

Media bias in politics

It would appear Jones might have some reason to complain about media bias during Labour's recent leadership selection campaign according to Claire Robinson, who has put together a very interesting academic study of visual bias of the main newspapers in covering Labour's 2013 leadership selection campaign - see: Looking like a winner.

Grant Robertson, too, might have reason to feel aggrieved. But social media watcher, Matthew Beveridge analyses and evaluates the Twitter activity of Robertson (@grantrobertson1), and concludes that he's one of the most effective opposition MPs on social media - see: MPs on Twitter: Grant Robertson.

Media bias is always going to be a complaint made by every political party and there will be a temptation in Labour to blame the media for Labour's current low polling - for example, see Greg Presland's blogpost, Media bias. But this type of thinking is possibly counterproductive, as expressed in Scott Yorke's satirical blogpost By all means let's blame the media.

Finally - in case you missed it - here's Steve Braunias' very clever Secret diary of David Cunliffe.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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