New Zealand’s Labour desperate as National consolidate big lead

By Huw Silk

This autumn (southern hemisphere spring), New Zealand will host the biggest international event in its history. Tens of thousands of foreign fans are expected to descend on the Land of the Long White Cloud for the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off next month. There is a growing wave of optimism amongst Kiwis that that the All Blacks, seemingly perennial favourites for the tournament, can reclaim the trophy for the first time since 1987.

That cannot be said about another national event taking place later this year. Less than five weeks after the World Cup final, sees a general election in which Prime Minister John Key is expected to consolidate his position at the head of government. Three years after ending a run of three consecutive electoral wins for the Labour Party under Helen Clark, Key’s National Party looks set to be surging towards victory – and has its sights firmly set on achieving the first majority government since Jim Bolger’s 1993 triumph.

National, a party very similar in ideology to the British Conservative Party, has comfortably held off any Labour challenge throughout this Parliament. Indeed, Labour, under former Defence Minister Phil Goff, has been consistently around 20 percentage points in arrears of National.

Admittedly, a poll published on 22 July put National just 10 points ahead, on 37.7 percent. That, however, appeared to be an outlier; National has not had any poll rating of less than 48 percent since December 2008, while Labour has not polled higher than the mid-thirties since well before its defeat three years ago. The latest Herald Digipoll survey, published last Saturday in the New Zealand Herald newspaper, makes typical grim reading for Goff. His party sits on 33 percent, with National hardly visible in the distance on 52 percent.

Such poll ratings invoke the prospect that Key can overcome the hindrances of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system that operates in New Zealand. To ensure that an overall majority of the new parliament’s 120 MPs are coloured National blue, Key requires a majority barely larger than he attained three years ago.

National, if the vast majority of the polls are to be believed, look on course to become the first party to win more than half of votes cast since the party polled 54 percent sixty years – and twenty elections – ago. This could well turn out to be an era-defining election.

Politics in New Zealand over the last decade has in many ways mirrored events in the UK. Both countries had three-term Labour governments during the late 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century. Both National and the British Tories elected young, charismatic and telegenic leaders who undertook rebranding exercises; both fell just short of parliamentary majorities. New Zealand’s current deputy prime minister, Bill English, has overcome leading the party into a landslide defeat in 2002 to become a key member of the government, in much the same way as David Cameron’s unofficial party deputy, William Hague, put behind his disastrous loss in 2001.

There, however, the similarities seem to end. New Zealand Labour dreams of a poll showing it with only a single-digit deficit; British Labour holds a relatively consistent lead over the Tories. Cameron has negative approval ratings; John Key appears to have had a honeymoon of record length and remains enormously popular.

The problem for Labour is that their leader remains politically toxic. In the ‘preferred prime minister’ stakes, Goff is suffering even more obviously than his party. While Key got the thumbs-up from 70 percent of voters, Goff’s score of 9 percent barely beat the rating received in the same poll by Helen Clark. And even when voters express a preference for many Labour policies over those of National, this trend does not translate into increased support for the party.

Perhaps, then, the largest obstacle for Labour is one that they have little power to shift: the stubbornly elevated level of approval for the Prime Minister and the government in general. Both have ridden out their share of controversies with no more than superficial damage, and the New Zealand public looks set to endorse overwhelmingly their three years in office.

Key’s down-to-earth attitude, his attempts to distance himself from the widely denigrated habits of the typical politician and his anti-waste austerity drive have played well with New Zealanders, and he is seen as somebody the electorate can easily relate to. Even his cringe-worthy comedic performance on the Late Show with David Letterman, when he announced the top 10 reasons to visit his country (including having the ‘loosest slot machines in the Pacific Rim’) was hailed by supporters to demonstrate Key’s likeability.

Ignoring the personal reasons behind support for Key and his party, the political implications for New Zealand and beyond are significant. For a party to be riding so high in the polls, in spite – or even because of – its announcement of spending cuts of NZ$1bn (around £500m) over the coming year, perhaps bodes well for British Conservatives and Republicans in the Unites States who have supported similar plans.

The New Zealand model of deficit reduction with the retention of political popularity may well be studied closely by David Cameron and George Osborne, as well as Republican presidential candidates and, indeed, fiscal conservatives throughout the West. The general election this autumn will definitely be a defining moment, for New Zealand and abroad.

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