Suddenly the prospect of Labour being kicked out of power in 2023 no longer seems so absurd. The latest 1News Kantar opinion poll shows Labour dropping to 37 per cent support – the party's lowest since 2017 and a big change from the historic highs that saw Labour win 50 per cent of the vote just 18 months ago. More importantly, National has surged ahead of Labour for the first time since Covid hit – now on 39 per cent. This is an earthquake of a result, which has shattered all the assumptions about the political landscape. Meanwhile, the minor parties muddle along, with the Greens on 9 per cent and Act on 8 per cent. The smaller parties, including Te Pāti Māori (2 per cent) could once again, to play a pivotal role.
Also shocking for Labour are the poll results showing National leader Christopher Luxon is in the ascendancy, and is now seen as a real challenger to Ardern. On the "preferred prime minister" question, he has jumped up to 25 per cent support, while Ardern's support continues its downward direction, to 34. But when the public was asked which of the two leaders should be PM, it was almost a dead heat, with 46 per cent choosing Ardern, and 45 per cent Luxon.
Christophoria or Labour-lite?
Some are viewing this as "Christophoria" or "Luxomania". It's true that the new National leader is a significant factor in the poll turn-around. But rather than an enthusiastic vote of confidence in National and Luxon, it undoubtedly reflects more of a waning confidence in Labour and Ardern.
Luxon and National have managed to pull themselves together enough that they are acting as the receptacle for swing voters who have grown tired of the status quo. Shifting voters don't need to be excited about the new National leader and his party – it's not that the Opposition is offering anything new or of substance – but, crucially, they are no longer repulsed.
Crisis? What Crisis?
What is driving voters away from Labour? A combination of social, economic and political factors have developed over the last two years that would have challenged any government. Ardern's response so far risks an "Autumn of discontent", such as was experienced during the British Labour Government's winter of discontent in the late 1970s.
In that case, British Prime Minister James Callaghan was notoriously aloof and seen as out of touch with voters' experience by refusing to see rising cost of living problems as a crisis. He was famously paraphrased in a Sun newspaper headline: "Crisis? What Crisis?"
With the Prime Minister continuing to deny that the public, and especially those at the bottom, are experiencing a cost of living crisis, Ardern is looking increasingly out of touch. And this is providing an easy hunting ground for Luxon. As commentator Martyn Bradbury has quipped: "You know things are bad when Chris Luxon who owns 7 properties can make Jacinda look out of touch when it comes to a cost of living crisis."
Bradbury also views the decline in the Government's fortunes as woke chickens coming home to roost. He argues there's been a tendency for Labour and the Greens to focus on politically correct issues and not traditionally leftwing ones that advance material concerns in areas like housing, inequality, health, or even climate change.
Inequality is a massive problem according to right wing commentator Matthew Hooton, who writes today about the outrageous increase in the fortunes of the wealthy due to government policies of the last few years, saying "you do not have to be some sort of communist to think this is a problem".
Here's how Hooton puts it: "it has in fact done unprecedented harm, by presiding over a one trillion dollar transfer of wealth from the poor and young to the old and rich, the worst in New Zealand's post-colonial history. This after promising to end child poverty and reduce inequality."
It's not just about house prices and inequality, but the fact that Labour has made mistakes in managing Covid, after the first successful year in 2020. Hooton says: "Even since the Government failed to order the vaccine in time to prevent Auckland's otherwise unnecessary four-month Delta lockdown, and then took a holiday instead of preparing for Omicron, Labour has been in serious trouble."
The problem of governing during a pandemic can't be underestimated, and Labour has made some difficult and sometimes highly-questionable decisions on managing Delta and Omicron. As Stuff's political editor Luke Malpass says today: "Labour has been steadily slipping since the elimination strategy was abandoned during the lockdown last year. Turns out that dealing with Covid is difficult when you can't just throw up the borders, keep it out and let life continue basically normally here. People get tired of changing rules, restrictions and just Covid more generally."
And then there have been the parliamentary protests. The 1News Kantar poll shows that although 46 per cent of the public approve of Labour's handling of the protest, a sizable 43 per cent disapproved.
A Herald Kantar poll showed "a strong majority of people were opposed to the protest – especially in Wellington – but there was 12 per cent support for it among those polled. 72 per cent said they were opposed and 14 per cent neither supported nor opposed the protesters".
Polling shows that support for vaccine mandates has dropped significantly over the past few months, though the majority of New Zealanders remain broadly in favour.
What can the Government do to turn around its decline?
Labour will be reviewing some of its more unpopular reform areas such as Three Waters. There will be plenty of other areas to review – especially in the cost of living and perceptions of unnecessary government spending, but also income relief for those at the bottom. Like previous governments before it, it has been ineffective at dealing with spiralling housing costs, with much trumpeted policies proving embarrassingly anaemic in reality. All eyes will be on Grant Robertson's upcoming Budget.
Regardless of what Labour does, it needs to take heed of the fact that National and Luxon are prospering through their strong focus on economic matters. And it should reflect on other recent polling that shows National is now more trusted on housing than Labour.
But most urgently, the Prime Minister would now be wise to admit that the rising cost of living is a very real problem, especially for those on low incomes who Labour claims to champion. Waving this away clearly no longer works. And time is running out on Ardern's previously successful strategy of claiming empathy, but delivering little change.
Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.