National v Labour: Someone unelectable is going to beat the odds

As the polls start to swing back into action, a look across the electoral battlefield sees two major party leaders both struggling to get firm footing and take the high ground

Any which way you look at it, it seems impossible. History leans hard on both major parties at the moment, suggesting they are heading into an election year battling against the odds. There are good reasons why both red and blue teams should see this election as unwinnable – and good reasons why they may not want to win – but, thing is, one of them will. But which?


National goes into this election hard up against the nine year rule. Fourth terms are notoriously hard to come by; only the Liberals, Reform, the first Labour government and second National government have been able to achieve them and two of those were during the world wars.

While National has tried a mid-term refresh with the resignation of John Key, you only have to look back to Jenny Shipley's move to replace Jim Bolger at about the same time in the electoral cycle to know that's no guarantee of success.

As I've written before, six substitute Prime Ministers have tried to win office since Peter Fraser in the 1930s and all have failed. So, even with a stonking lead ove rhis main rivals, Bill English has his work cut out, not least because of the variables and traps of MMP.

What's most notable to me since English took over nine weeks ago is that he's tactically done little, if anything, to differentiate his administration from John Key's. While some in political circles at the time were murmuring that the worst thing National could do post-Key is try to run "a John Key government without John Key". Yet in most things English seems to be committed to keeping calm and carrying on.

He seems to have calculated that either his lead is sufficient to get him to September (Hare and the Tortoise anyone?) or that 'sure and steady' is a vote winner. Either those, or he has simply run out of ideas.

It does rather take ones mind back to the deputy leaders debate at the 2014 election in which he, depsite being asked several times, could not come up with one new idea for the New Zealand economy.

And if you want proof positive of that assertion, just look at his speech to the opening of parliament this year. Go through each page and look for the words he uses to describe his party's work plans for the year. He uses the word "begin" just once; "implement" twice. One potentially new idea he will "explore" and another he will "consult" on.

In comparison, English, in describing his plans in health, education, welfare, foreign policy, even housing, uses the word "continue" 31 times. He uses "progress" another 14 times. Facing the chance to make history and redeem his leadership record, he's simply carrying on what National would have done anyway and no showing any sign of new thinking or adapting to the times.

Every signal he's sending is that he's the anti-change candidate. It certainly fits his conservative character. The question National MPs must be asking is whether it fits the times.

This first poll of the year gives him some succour; which third term government wouldn't be happy with 46 percent support and a ten seat lead on its rival centre-left coalition? In Pundit's poll of polls, it barely moved through 2016 and while TVNZ's poll suggests a wee slip, it's still a strong place to be. We'll know more a couple of more polls in.


Our poll of polls offers less comfort for Labour and Andrew Little. A year ago Labour was on 29 percent and promising big moves, big announcements. By year's end it was down to 27 percent. Even this week's TVNZ poll of 30 percent leaves it well shy of where it needs to be to truly threaten the Treasury benches.

Last year was, Little said, one for laying out policy and building the foundations ahead of a campaigning year in 2017. Beyond, perhaps, the promise of three free years of tertiary education, I'd dare you to find two people in the street tomorrow who could name any of Labour's big, new, winning policies from last year.

And when you have a leader on single figures in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, policy is really all you have.

That's perhaps why Poto Williams felt able to challenge her leader in public and get away with it; clearly Labour's caucus members still have their doubts about Little. Williams' challenge over the Willie Jackson appointment raised all the old chestnuts of worry for Labour and told potential swing voters they were still not worthy of their trust.

Can you imagine what would happen in National – or just about any other party – if a backbencher met with her leader to discuss an issue on a Friday and still went ahead and put up a critical Facebook post on Sunday written in conjunction with a private PR firm? Toast. That Williams survived that insurrection only tells you Little fears his caucus and another ruccus more than he fears looking weak in public.

Labour has started the year doubling down on housing as the vote-changing issue, but seems to be struggling to find another. Poverty, perhaps, but National has benefit increases and minimum wage rises to point to.

Immigration is there for the taking – for a while, although it's hard to imagine National not seeing them off at that pass – but Labour has a knack for getting its knickers twisted on that as it tries to be nationalist and pro-migrant at the same time.

Either way, Little had a chance upon Key's resignation to make a strong, enthusiastic bid for the middle ground. National's discipline through a single week of transition was formidable, but for those seven days at least Labour had the chance to impose itself and its agenda. 'I am John Key's heir to the centre of New Zealand politics', Little could have cried. It was time for a big signal to make people look anew; instead he mumbled about Labour's win in Mt Roskill (holding a safe seat). The moment passed.

So, just as it would be historic for English to overcome the odds and win in September, so it would be for Little to triumph. Remember: He's a list MP with no personal or party momentum and a less than stable group of MPs almost 20 points behind in the polls (though that may be as low as seven if you include the Greens).

His reliance on the Greens shows just how far Labour is from where they want to be. And yes, if he can find another five percent and, yes, if National falls by a similar number, then he can make a case for a change in government. And yes, then he can push the Greens into a marginal supply and confidence role while he does a deal with New Zealand First.

But that seems a long way off just seven months out from election day.

So whether you're red or blue this year, your team is going to make history. Unless, you're black and white, of course. That, my friends, would be history of quite a different kind.