21 Sep 2023

The electorate swing, Labour limbo and Luxon-Hipkins two-step

From Caucus, 3:00 pm on 21 September 2023

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Analysis - Another poll, another 27 for Labour. It was July the last time one of the reputable TV company polls had Labour's poll percentage starting with a three, so the limbo question is now being asked: how low can you go?

It seems such an unlikely question because this doesn't feel like the kind of election that delivers a 27 percent major party. Usually parties crumble because of internal dissent, a tanking economy or radical reform.

Labour has been cautious in its reforms; many of its supporters say too cautious. The economy's sub-par, but take away the partisan politics and it's pretty clear that's the result of war in Europe, global inflation, China's woes and paying off the costs of a pandemic either major party in government would have accrued. (Before you argue, look at how a National government responded to the global financial crisis and Christchurch earthquakes). Inflation is falling, we were never in a recession, the credit agencies are giving us AAAs, and unemployment has stayed low. What's more, Labour has united behind Chris Hipkins and backed him to run this campaign as he wants. There's none of the back-biting and dysfunction of the Shearer/Cunliffe/Little years.

Yet as we discuss on this week's Caucus podcast, voters this far into the campaign are proving unwilling to take another look at Labour. They've done their Covid time; seen the failings of KiwiBuild, light rail and the rest; tsked at Cabinet ministers behaving badly; wept at the price of kumara and so far been unwilling to reconsider this government.

The right bloc of National and ACT is holding around 47-49 percent. It's tight when it comes to whether they will need New Zealand First to have a majority - a nightmare scenario for any major party trying to govern with less than 40 percent support, as Guyon Espiner says - but it mirrors the results John Key and various ACT leaders delivered through three elections. Things are looking good for the right.

What's perhaps yet under-appreciated is the disaster a 27 percent result would be for Labour and its future. If we assume Labour will hold 30 seats (the assumption being it loses it red wave wins of 2020 and maybe one or two more), then 27 percent and New Zealand First in Parliament would give Labour just four list MPs. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Education Minister Jan Tinetti.

Photo: RNZ

Those list seats would be taken by Grant Robertson, Jan Tinetti (assuming she loses Tauranga), Ayesha Verrall and Willie Jackson. It would see the exit of senior MPs Andrew Little, Adrian Rurawhe and David Parker. But perhaps more importantly - if some marginal seats also fall in a swing back to National - Labour could lose its next generation leaders, such as Peeni Henare, Kieran McAnulty, Ginny Andersen, Priyanca Radhakrishnan and Camilla Belich.

Given most people still two-tick, the swing back to National in the party vote is likely to be reflected in seats as well. The Newshub Nation poll in Wellington Central this week illustrated this, with National's party vote in the seat doubling from 14 percent in 2020 to 28 percent and its candidate vote rising from 18 percent in 2020 to 28 percent.

Hence the concern for McAnulty and co. The margin between the late-20s and early-30s matters immensely to Labour's future. One Labour MP I spoke to this week said the party was still confident of rebounding and, as Julian Wilcox has heard as well, the focus is now on turnout. That MP said that crucially, MPs were still focused on the party vote and hadn't turned inward, attempting to save their own seats. The party was holding together.

What should happen the next day but Greg O'Connor in Ōhāriu - in a hotly contested race with National's deputy leader Nicola Willis - is reported saying at a local debate, "let's face it, unless something changes in the debate tonight [referencing the 1News leaders' debate this week], Nicola's likely to be the next Finance Minister". O'Connor is trying to appeal to an electorate that famously values access to its local MP, but that line will cut like a knife for his leader and colleagues.

The Caucus team also discussed the first leaders' debate, aka the middle managers' debate. Lisa Owen acknowledged the detail was there, but asked where was the hope, the rainbows and sunshine? She says the leaders did "a two-step" around the big issues and the hosts agreed the big winners may have been the parties who weren't there. The minors already have a third of the vote, according to the polls. Only the 1996 and 2002 elections saw less vote captured by Labour and National combined. And if Luxon and Hipkins can't lift their game, the minor party proportions could yet grow.

TVNZ Leaders Debate held on 19 September with Labour's Chris Hipkins and National's Christopher Luxon.

Photo: TVNZ / Andrew Dalton

Luxon did get his 'deckchair' moment, when he told the humanising story of he and his wife sitting in their first home with only a single deckchair and a TV on a box as furniture. It was the moment he needed to help ward of voter's concerns that he's a rich Auckland businessman who doesn't get them.

Hipkins, though likeable and considered, couldn't find his moment. There were chances, such as when he warned voters against a National-ACT-New Zealand First coalition. But he never rammed them home. As an example of what Hipkins was looking for - and will still be looking for in the next debate - we played a clip of the final 1993 leaders' debate. Jim Bolger is onto what he thinks is a winning moment, saying he is working across the aisle with Jim Anderton and Winston Peters on employment issues, and in a clearly rehearsed line asks Mike Moore why he won't join them. Moderator Paul Holmes says it's a reasonable question and asks Moore to answer. Moore replies, "And it demands a reasonable answer. [pause]. Because I don't trust you Bolger."

Boom. Delivered to a Prime Minister who had gone back on several high-profile commitments, in particular his famous "no ifs, no buts, no maybes" promise to abolish the superannuation surcharge, it was a mic drop moment. A sword to the heart. Hipkins - a scrappy working-class boy like Moore, a politician he admires - needs to find the sort of cut and thrust Moore had in his prime.

But he's running out of chances to get Labour back into the 30s and back into this campaign. Hipkins needs to find some song-and-dance routine that resonates. Whether it's a swing or a two-step, Hipkins needs some new dance steps if he doesn't want to be doing a limbo. He's got to find a way to make "grumpy" voters take another look at what he's offering, or he could follow Moore as one of New Zealand's shortest-lived Prime Ministers.