As all things new come to dominate New Zealand's political landscape, National will be forced more quickly than it hoped to confront its own need for change. Tonight's poll offers succour for the party, but tolls the bell for Bill.

The first poll of the year confirms the over-arching narrative of New Zealand politics since the election and follows some pretty typical trends. But it raises a few curly questions too, mostly about new generations.

The Newshub Reid Research poll has Labour enjoying the spoils of victory and incumbency, with a 5.4 percent rise to 42.3 percent. National though still sits above it on 44.5 percent, up 0.1 percent on election night. The Greens are down marginally on six percent but New Zealand First has almost halved its support to 3.8 percent (down 3.4).

A quiet summer absent of controversey or economic woe and Labour's ability to tick off almost all of its 100 day plan ahead of schedule means its rise in support is entirely what you would expect. After years of waiting, the promise that so many Labour leaders and candidates for the leadership made during their wilderness years has finally been achieved. Their poll number "starts with a 4". Around a year ago a few observers – and some politicians – were wondering if that would ever happen again.

Of course you can add the glow of pregnancy to the glow of incumbency. The poll was taken in the days after Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford announced they were having a baby, so love was in the air. The national conversation was all about Labour and labour. There's nothing like giving birth to a new generation to give your administration the sense that is the government to lead us into the future.

The Greens will be relieved to be steady and that is a testament to James Shaw's immense workload and stable hand holding the ship together during Cyclone Metiria. They now face the huge risk-opportunity of a leadership race, which could be a good showcase for the party's talent, but which just as easily could expose some of the factions and internal contradictions within the Greens.

Then there's the 'disaster' for New Zealand First. Look, no party likes to lose support and any party losing almost half its support has every right to feel like the world is ending. But it's not. It may be more than they wanted, but the trend is entirely predictable.

New Zealand First always loses something after an election, and would have expected to lose a decent chunk of its support after having been the decider after this election. It's mere commonsense to note that many of those who have voted New Zealand First in the hope it would choose National, not Labour, will be unimpressed and would have picked National when the pollsters rang. But that doesn't mean they might not return to Winston and his wiles come the 2020 campaign. And it has plenty of time to chip away at National's vote over the next two and a half years. So its MPs won't be panicked.

They will look too at Peters' preferred PM rating of 5.7 percent and take that 3.8 percent with a grain of salt. 

The one surprise in all this predictability is National's continual strength. That it remains more popular as a party than Labour wreathed in the Jacinda Effect should give its still grieving MPs some succour. It has maintained its discipline since the election and sitting at over 44 percent after it had been in power for three terms is quite an achievement. 

Notably, that support level gives it the luxury of time to plan its next move. National shouldn't need to run through leaders as Labour did. Or require the services of a Mike Moore, who came in to "save the furniture" in 1990. That will depend on the ambitions and ideological drivers at play within the party.

Yet today the inevitable rumblings about Bill English's leadership finally washed up on the public's shores. Bigger waves are coming and change is inevitable. This continued popularity under English even after a loss shows how many people still have faith in the man from Southland and leaves historians with interesting debates about the extent of John Key's power and its part in National's nine year run.

But every rule of politics says it's time for English to go. His preferred Prime Minister number now sits at 26 percent to Ardern's 38 percent. Down nine. It's hard to conceive of a way he could ever pass her again. And talking about conception, well, if English ever hoped to somehow hang on for a bit in case this three-way government imploded, those hopes are now surely dashed. First, the government shows little sign of internal tension. But most of all, Labour has a narrative about new starts and caring for Kiwi kids, apple pie and - literally - motherhood that makes it all-but impervious to a man who by the next election will be celebrating his 30th anniversary in parliament. A vote for him in 2020 reeks of looking backward. 

It's the same political truth Phill Goff had to face in 2011. Now Goff took one for the team and it may be that someone has to do the same for National. English might have been willing to do that and his MPs may have let him do that... until the baby news. Now, National needs its own new generation. Its own new face. A sense it too is looking forward, not back.

The question is whether someone who genuinely wants to be the next National PM would want the job of Opposition leader just yet. On one hand, the chances of winning in 2020 are slim. One-term governments are almost unheard of in New Zealand, least of all if they are led by only the second women in modern history to give birth in office. On the other hand, governments do run aground. Politics can turn upside down very quickly; just ask Ardern. And you only benefit from that if you are the one in the musical leader's chair when the music stops. 

What National doesn't lack is ambitious prospects. Simon Bridges may be the front-runner, but Nikki Kaye has a political narrative to compete with Jacinda Ardern and knows the PM well; she beat her twice in Auckland Central. 

But Amy Adams will desperately want a crack, as will Jonathan Coleman, as John Key II. Paula Bennett still harbours ambitions; it's hard to know whether she realises her time has passed. Judith Collins too will want the leadership, though her politics would drag the party away from its Key-English centrism. If she stands we could finally see the depth of the Key legacy and a fight for the soul of the party. Those on the right of the party who have bided their time under Key and English, see an opportunity. It could define their party for another decade. So what party does National want to be?

The old guard will have to find a way to ebb away. Not just English, but Steven Joyce, Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee. The party's next steps need to be guided by the likes of Bridges and Kaye, with the help of Mark Mitchell, Paul Goldsmith, Todd Muller, Alfred Ngaro and Chris Bishop. It's notable and unhelpful that those mid-table players are mostly white, middle-aged men from the North Island and, frankly, National has a long tail. Hidden behind its kitchen cabinet has always been a number of weak performers in its caucus. They have to be cleared out by 2020, so the new leader needs some time.  

Anne Tolley and Amy Adams (if she doesn't win the leadership) will be vital to the party's fortunes.

But National's strength is also its weakness; that 44.5 percent means it can only go down from here. National has a target on its back. ACT – or whatever may replace it on the right – will believe it can surely win some votes off National this term. If David Seymour can't do that, he will have flattered to deceive and failed. 

Most of all, Winston Peters will be charging round the regions, looking to hoover up every vote possible. He knows National can't hold at 44 percent in Opposition and it will be near impossible – and counter-productive – to get into a struggle with Labour for at least two years.

Tonight's numbers confirm that Bill English has every reason to expect a graceful exit. His colleagues want to give him that. But he can be under no illusion; his time is up and they will be waiting for him to leave the party so they can change the music and open a few new bottles. Right now, New Zealand politics is all about new generations and new birth.

Comments (18)

by Alan Johnstone on February 01, 2018
Alan Johnstone

English was never going to be able to carry on after his election defeat.

It took them time to accept the fact they'd really lost, but once they'd processed and moved on change was inevitable. 

I don't see a lot of political talent in the ranks, could be looking at a decade in opposition.

by Kat on February 01, 2018
Kat

National have the talent scouts out searching, searching, and the helicopter is ready to fly the next "real" leader in.

by James Green on February 01, 2018
James Green

You're talking about winning for winning's sake. National and Labour are each ideologically bankrupt parties that are entirely dependent on charismatic leaders, although if neither party has one National seems to get the advantage.

NZ First is in a similar position and even the Greens are now drifting in that direction.

by Ross on February 01, 2018
Ross

It's hard to conceive of a way he could ever pass her again.

But he doesn't need to pass her for National to govern. He was ahead of Ardern in the preferred PM stakes before the election and of course National received considerably more votes than Labour. Fat good that did either of them. 

by Tim Watkin on February 02, 2018
Tim Watkin

Ross it's possible, but I think very unlikely, for voters to rally around an English-led National Party unless something disastrous (or, I guess, steady attrition) drives down Ardern's popularity. Voters might look at National again if it's 'under new management', but it would feel like going backwards as a country to pick English over Ardern as PM in 2020 and I don't think the swing voters who decide elections would buy that. That's what underlies what I was saying.

Also, Ardern could become PM from behind English because she had two strong coalition partners. Her argument was that it was OK she was second in all things because she had a mandate as a government of three parties. English couldn't make that argument. I'm not sure how much that matters, but it's an observation.

by Tim Watkin on February 02, 2018
Tim Watkin

Yep James, it was a piece about winning. That's a pretty significant driver of politicians, even the most ideological. You can change the world if you lose.

But I think your view is very cynical. English's commitment to social investment runs deep (though I think some in National would take different views), Labour MPs are all passionate about poverty issues and housing... I would agree that the parties are over media-managed and risk-adverse these days, but I don't agree they are bankrupt. 

by Charlie on February 02, 2018
Charlie

Do I really need to remind you that Helen Clark was in single digits as opposition leader before she beat Shipley and ran the country for a decade?

The current government faces some problems in the longer term that the love-fest over Jacinda's pregnancy won't be able to cover up..

Firstly the three coalition partners are a very poor ideological fit. They have yet to be tested and I predict cracks will form once the pressure is applied. Winston has to get his waka jumping legislation into force to avoid a breakup of his party (Winston falls out with everyone he works with) and this will upset some of his coalition partners, many voters and some in his own party.

The Greens are the 'Perpetual Protest Party' and have yet to prove they can run with the ball. I predict some undisciplied behavior in their ranks as they continue to play the fool, despite being in government. The current crop are even more immature than the previous  generation!

Most of Jacinda's 'policies' aren't policies. They're bumper sticker slogans and Labour knows this. So they've appointed a bunch of commissons of inquiry in order to kick the can down the road. In three years time I can assure you no more trees will have been planted, there will still be a housing shortage and a bunch of pointed headed academics will still be arguing over the definition of 'poverty'. National will slay them, English or no English.

 

by Tim Watkin on February 03, 2018
Tim Watkin

No Charlie, you do not. But I'm not quite sure what point you're making with that observation. If it's that English's falling popularity in contrast to the Jacinda Effect doesn't matter and he could win in 2020, then I disagree. He's doing well for an Opposition leader being in the 20s. His party is ahead, which is all kudos to him.

But as I tried to explain to Ross, it would be remarkable for the swing voters to swing back to him. The psychology of going backwards would be hard to overcome. Have we ever done that before? Perhaps in a sense with Nash? But never back to an ex-PM who will have been an MP for 30 years. 

The Nash and 1957 election comparisons are interesting. English is somewhat like Nash and Ardern somewhat like Holyoake. Except it's all the other way round. The person who took leadership just weeks before the election was in Opposition, not in government. The old ex-Finance Minister, the reverse. But old Nash won, in part because National had done its nine year dash, as they had last year.

It became clear quite soon that the books were worse than thought, as has often been the case in NZ. While Labour has complained about a few unfunded things National left behind, there doesn't seem to have been any major bodies dug up since the election, tax revenue is up and while Winston worries, there's no sense that economic collapse is imminent (though I wouldn't rule out some bumps).

So while it's interesting I don't think there's any succour English can take from that. Neither is the Clark comparison much use – she was a new PM, Shipley's lot had fallen apart, National was in its third term etc.

As for your predictions of government collapse, we'll see. It looks surprisingly disciplined at this stage, but that could change. And yes the inquiries etc show Labour hasn't got all its ducks in a row, I think it's over the top to say their policies are all slogans. There's plenty of meat on most of those bones.

So at this stage in the cycle and up against a young, popular (and pregnant) leader, have to do something unprecedented. I don't see that happening and I don't think anyone in National does either. 

by Kat on February 03, 2018
Kat

Charlie's coments are so typical of the monotonous drone of the pigeon holing trolls who continually repeat memes in the belief that if they do it often enough it will become reality.

So far this coalition govt has ticked all its goals for the first 100 days. Jacinda Ardern is proving to be a very switched on operator as well as an immensely likeable leader.  The coalition govt will have to do something pretty stupid to have its momentum slowed. With the current leadership that is unlikely to happen, much to the chagrin of those blue supporters.

 Unfortunately for Bill English his days are mumbered ("Dead man walking" there you go, some fodder for the trolls such as Charlie) and he is merely the caretaker of a losing political team that is exuding all the unmistakeable signs of internal unrest.

Fortunately for New Zealand the National party in its current form will not be back.

by Charlie on February 03, 2018
Charlie

I see where you're coming from. Thanks.

For me English is the Charlie Brown of politics: A thoroughly nice guy who is well capable of running the country but is unfortunately a bit grey personality. And when about 40% of the country lives in Auckland, the Southland accent comes across as a bit....rural.

However, too often in politics, gaining power is not what one does right, it's what your opponent does wrong. Regardless of whether English is leading National in three years time (I don't care either way), they have a lot of other talent and I expect they'll be able to exploit a long list of screw-ups made by the current government. By that time I also expect growth will be down and unemployment up.

Labour's current bump in popularity is mostly about 'the bump'. Yes, people are that shallow! I doubt the honeymoon will last though.

I also expect NZFirst to cease to exist after the next election. I know a few people who say they voted NZF and they are all to the right of National. Several voted NZF as a protest over Paula Bennett's appalling handling of the firearms licencing review - never expecting Winston would ever go with Labour. Over 50,000 firearms owners could have made a difference to last year's election.

Either way, it's more fun than watching the Warriors  :-)

by Sam on February 03, 2018
Sam

Charlie:


"By that time I also expect growth will be down and unemployment up."

"I also expect NZFirst to cease to exist next election."

???

We'll revisit your predictions with you in 2 years!!! Shall we?

by Ross on February 04, 2018
Ross

Ross it's possible, but I think very unlikely, for voters to rally around an English-led National Party unless something disastrous (or, I guess, steady attrition) drives down Ardern's popularity

Political leaders often get only one chance at becoming PM - if they fail they usually get replaced sooner or late (eg Moore, Goff, Cunliffe, Shipley, Brash). English has twice run for election as aspiring (or then) PM and has twice failed. I can't imagine he'll get a third opportunity irrespective of his status as preferred PM. So I agree with you about English's future. 

by Ross on February 04, 2018
Ross

...if they fail they usually get replaced sooner or later.

My point - which perhaps I didn't explain very clearly - is that popularity of a party and its leader are secondary and perhaps unrelated to electoral success. English was more popular than Ardern prior to the last election and of course National gained more votes than Labour. But in the end, each counted for nought because English and National couldn't form a government.

by James Green on February 05, 2018
James Green

It is not to say that politicians don't care, I think the vast majority do have positive things they care about a lot. But lack of ideology means they don't have a consistent method of how to fix problems beyond what they care about. More importantly lack of ideology creates parties of loosly affiliated individuals who bumble through 3 year terms achieving far less than they could if they had an actual bloody plan!

And without a plan parties get captured by, or voluntarily rely on, charasmatic leaders who win their elections for them and basically to tell them what to do.

by Tim Watkin on February 05, 2018
Tim Watkin

James, yeah I guess ideology is a bit like the three bears' porridge. Too hot and too cold can leave a very bad taste indeed!

by Charlie on February 08, 2018
Charlie

James,

I agree on your first point: Most politicians I know do care and have a genuine desire to do good (although I suppose they may become more cynical as times goes on). This applies to both sides of the aisle.

Where I disagree with you is in the need for ideology. Life is complicated and going into governemt which a fixed ideoloy is rather like the old joke: When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

There is an idea called 'Contingency Theory'.  It states that everything circumstance is unique and every management decision should be contingent on the unique circumstances of that individual circumstance. So an effective minister is one who is capable of listening to advice and making a pragmatic decision based on unique circumstances and the data. This is the opposite of ideology.

by James Green on February 09, 2018
James Green

How come the ministers keep making shit decisions then? How the hell are we supposed to get them to make good decisions? Wait for them to luck into them? Wait for situations to get so bad they have no choice but to try the first shiny alternative that comes along? That's how we got Rogernomics in the first place.

If parties have ideologies it allows the voters to choose the best one for the moment, not the politicians after they've been elected.

It's not really that the parties don't have ideologies, it's that they all have the same one: liberalism.

by Sam on February 10, 2018
Sam

Its my belief that being a minister allows people to perform controlled functions in times of peace. But in a crises those functions may just tip over anyway. 

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