A four-point drop in a Colmar Brunton poll taken for TVNZ last week must be a shock to supporters of the Labour Party. It followed John Key's failure to carry the country at the flag referendum, the first time he had lost a nationwide vote since he became the National Party's leader nearly 10 years ago.
While the referendum was not supposed to be about him, Labour, the Greens and NZ First did their utmost to make it so, urging voters to deny him a "legacy" of that kind. It now seems likely their opposition boosted support for a flag change which turned out to be higher than expected and the result was particularly close in some of the seats National holds. As it turns out, the flag poll has done the Government no harm and the Opposition no good.
The poll, which began a week after the referendum result, showed the Prime Minister's personal rating down a percentage point and National up three points to 50 per cent. Collectively, the three Opposition parties lost three points.
Labour and NZ First's losses were partly offset by a two-point gain for the Greens. The result is a good one for issues such as the flag. It should encourage prime ministers to take non-partisan but highly contentious proposals to referendums without doing much damage to their government's position.
But Labour's drop to just 28 per cent in the latest poll is not a good result for politics in this country. When a major party slips below 30 per cent, the party and its supporters begin to lose confidence in its policies and leadership and the result can be a move to extreme positions. The dangers can be seen in many Western democracies at present. In the United States, the primaries of both parties are being won by candidates from the fringes, Senator Ted Cruz of the religious right, Senator Bernie Sanders, a rare, self-proclaimed "socialist" in American politics, and the outrageous Donald Trump. In the United Kingdom, where Labour suffered a devastating electoral rejection last year, it responded by electing a leader even further left than the rejected one. In France and other European countries, the far right is on the rise.
Here, politics has been remarkably stable under not only the present Government but the previous one. The aim of every successful government is to take up so much of the middle of the road that, as David Lange once put it, their opponents have to "drive in the gutter". That is Labour's problem, as it was for National when Helen Clark ruled the road.
Labour's current leader blames himself for its latest fall. The result was expected, he said, because it coincided with a week in which he did not perform well. That was the week he suggested he would threaten to regulate bank interest rates if they did not pass on an OCR reduction. It was just the latest desperate move Labour has made this year, from reversing its position on the TPP to promising free tertiary education and toying with a universal benefit, not to mention the flag.
None of these moves have helped the party in the polls. Labour is in politics for the long haul and its time will come when the country wants new leadership, not before.
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