Clark and Cullen have won the war, regardless of Saturday's battle

While the outcome of the election hangs in limbo for a few more days, one thing is sure – Labour is fighting desperately against a mood for a change which has been entrenched for many months

If we look back almost a year to the day, a basic rolling average of the six most recent polls at 30 October 2007 gives a result which bears striking similarity to current rolling polls.

30 October 07

Pollwatch at 27 October 2008







NZ First









United F






What it illustrates is just how difficult the last year has been for Labour. Helen Clark has been doggedly battling to remain in the hunt despite the problems of longevity, particularly the electorate’s ennui with Labour’s approach to moral issues.

The fact that Labour remains a gambler’s chance is remarkable given the nose-diving economy. That chance will be determined by the nuances of MMP and Helen Clark’s skill at fashioning alliances. Labour remaining in the hunt is also a reflection of lingering uncertainty over National’s true agenda (though we have yet to see the impact – if any – of Labour’s H-bomb stumbles at the end of last week).

Clark’s chances are not helped by NZ First’s likely demise. While no sane person can write Peters off until after the inevitable High Court recount, it now seems NZ First’s only chance might be a freak victory by Ron Mark in Rimutaka.

Setting aside the mood for face changes, there is little mood for any substantial change to the policy settings Clark and Cullen have set in place over the last nine years. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this election has been the way Labour’s social democracy now dominates the policy debate. On every issue of substance save tax, neo-liberalism has surrendered to the new social democratic consensus.

As a country we now believe again in investing in public services. We believe once again in owning key assets like airlines and railways. We want cheap primary health care. We expect low cost tertiary education. We want ACC to remain as it is. We celebrate the Cullen Fund and KiwiSaver. We want our government to give nurses and teachers and soldiers and police officers decent pay rises.

This is the stuff that gives Roger Douglas palpitations. But they are now fixtures of our political firmament. Clark and Cullen have emerged victorious over Douglas and Prebble. After the new right upheavals of the 1980s and 90s, New Zealand is now comfortable as a more redistributive, activist and socially democratic economy and society.

So why is middle New Zealand willing to put this at risk? Well, Saturday will tell us if they are.

If Labour manages to lift its support by a couple of percent and then forge a coalition, we know how they will govern. It will be incremental and risk averse, continuing to usher in social democratic prescriptions to fix the ills of the free market. We will see the government continue to drag the business community towards a more sustainable basis.

National’s approach is more a mystery. They say they won’t sell any state assets, tamper with health spending, undo employment law, reverse the nuclear-free policy, or re-introduce market rents for state houses. So what exactly would they do? Tinkering with the RMA won’t grab too many headlines.

Doing nothing but managing under the current policy settings is the approach that Keith Holyoake’s National took in the 1960s. What was okay then – a managerial approach to governing – won’t wash in the 24-7 media environment of modern politics. It is a recipe for inertia. And inertia in politics is deadly.

What is clear, however, is that regardless who wins the battle on Saturday, Clark won the war.