You know things are getting grim when someone pulls out the underdog card.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ response to the 1News Verian poll putting Labour at 29 per cent (and himself at a mere 21 per cent as preferred PM) was to claim underdog status, as if it was something he had won. In reality it is an admission you are in the schtuck.
There is little a leader can do to respond to such a poll other than to try to put a happy face on and grin through it.
Hipkins traversed the reasons for it. Not him or his captain’s calls or a lack of enthusiasm for his policies, but rather what he inherited and the mishaps and mayhem wrought by his personnel since he took over. Those were all behind him, he insisted. Clear air lay ahead.
It is usually a futile battle arguing against a move that will put money into voters’ pockets, especially when you haven’t got much to match it with. Tax cuts are always going to be popular.
But Hipkins tried anyway, claiming National’s offer of tax cuts was uncosted, unfunded and would deliver a lot to millionaires while Labour’s policy would simply make the millionaires’ pomegranates and grapes cheaper.
He claimed, optimistically, that voters simply hadn’t had time yet to digest Labour’s GST offering or other policies. Once they did, the rewards would surely come to Labour.
Explaining is losing, and that especially applies to attempts to explain why you are losing.
There is absolutely no way to gild it. On that poll, which echoes the Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll of the week before, Labour’s support has almost halved since 2020.
It is a gob-smacking statistic.
It will take some digesting for the bulk of Labour’s caucus. They are not used to being underdogs - they came in in 2017 or 2020 when Jacinda Ardern reigned supreme. Many have not tasted that bitter soup of poll numbers without a ‘3′ or a ‘4′ in front of it.
Labour MPs entering caucus today had an array of answers on the polls.
Peeni Henare’s was denial. He didn’t pay much attention to the polls. He pulled out the question of landlines (actually, the poll is a combination of landlines and cellphones). He didn’t know a single person who had even polled. Were they even real?
Grant Robertson was asked if he agreed with every captain’s call Hipkins had made. He didn’t say yes or no, he simply said a leader had the right to make them, by virtue of being a captain.
Willie Jackson decided attack was the best option. He delivered an extended spiel about the bogeyman on the right, saying a National-Act government would be a “dangerous right-wing” one, “running on a campaign of fear”.
He found some comfort in the 2017 election, when Labour polled in the mid 20s with two months to go - but ended up on 37 per cent and in government. That was the poll that triggered the swap from Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern.
It was pointed out Labour did not have a Jacinda waiting in the wings this time, and he said “no, but we’ve got a Chippy.”
He went on to wax lyrical about Hipkins, saying he was “passionate” but had had a bad run and been let down by some of his own team.
He wound it up with a “we are confident, we are strong. Chippy’s on fire” flourish, just as Hipkins walked behind him.
The big enemies for National in the poll are complacency and arrogance setting in.
Up in the National Party corridor, Luxon was taking no risks.
His stand-up lasted only eight minutes and was an exhibition in saying ‘no comment’ 100 different ways, especially on the question of which of Act’s policies he would tolerate. He said National would turn things around over and over, but cut it short long before the questions ran out.
Around the corner, the rest of National’s MPs were clearly under instruction to get mortgage rates or shopping into the answer to every question.
Judith Collins, asked if she might have some sympathy for Hipkins given her own first-hand experience of polling slumps: “What I feel sorry for actually are the people of New Zealand turning up at the checkout counter at the supermarket and can’t pay their bills. They’re the people I feel sorry for.”
Simeon Brown, asked why Labour had polled so low, spoke about somebody who had to re-fix their mortgage and had only $300 a week left to pay their bills.
Chris Bishop was asked if Labour was indeed now the underdog. He said that was absurd and claimed National were the real underdogs.
The last time we saw the underdog status being argued over so vigorously was in the Hamilton West byelection.
Labour’s candidate Georgie Dansey was the underdog, courtesy of the situation that led to the byelection: the melodramatic exit of Gaurav Sharma.
Labour lost the seat but could at least claim victory for proving it had indeed been the underdog.
If the voters deliver the same result in the upcoming election, it will be very a very hollow victory indeed.
Claire Trevett is the NZ Herald’s political editor, based at Parliament in Wellington. She started at the NZ Herald in 2003 and joined the Press Gallery team in 2007. She is a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.