Trend: Left turn

Our poll of polls confirms National’s poor showing over the Budget period. Looking ahead, the advantage probably lies with Labour and the Greens

The first full round of opinion polls since the Budget is out, and the trend in our poll of polls is clear: gains for the left and losses for National. National is down almost two points since we last reported the poll of polls on April 30, while Labour is up over two points and the Greens up a touch as well. New Zealand First is down a bit, but I have learned my lesson from last year and will not ever write off Winston until someone actually cremates the body.

Other parties aren't going anywhere much, up or down.

At the election, the gap between the right (NACT) and left (L+G) was around 11%. We estimate the gap today at around 2%, and some of the polls are even starting to show the potential left coalition ahead.

Almost all the estimates show that if the next election were held now, there would be no clear winner on the night. This is the number that shows up the claims that National really hasn't too much to worry about because its support is unchanged from election day. Maybe so, but everybody else's support has shifted around, and National's opponents look more formidable now than last November.

As I noted at the start of 2011, you don't want to extrapolate this kind of trend far into the future. This ideological linear trend, for example, would have the left ahead by around 45% by the end of 2014, which is plainly silly. The current rate of gains for the left will not keep up at its recent pace. I suspect we’ll now see a fairly long period, maybe a year or more, of National bouncing around between five up and three down  on L+G. Given margins for error, this kind of pattern would more or less signal an ideological tie.

Such a holding pattern will suit the left just fine ahead of an election campaign in which National has boxed itself into a corner where it cannot propose anything very exciting, but the left has not boxed itself in at all.

The big question for National’s brains trust now is “where is the next win going to come from?” The teacher numbers debacle was not an isolated incident. Off the top of my head there’s also the MFAT shambles, the paperboy tax silliness, various ACC shenanigans, consistently missing its own economic targets, selling assets against voters' wishes, and playing dumb on the future of superannuation. In recent months it has been bad news after bad news after more bad news.

The future likely sees more missed economic targets, with more excuse-making speeches to explain it away, little room for election year sweeteners as the government has been both preaching austerity and missing its targets, more scary reports about National’s policy on superannuation, and so on.

There will be more negative headlines about asset sales as National short cuts the Parliamentary process, and when many shares eventually find their way offshore you can bet the opposition and media will be asking plenty of awkward questions. There will no doubt be other niggles, too – the Rumsfeldian Unknown-Unknown strikes all governments from time to time.

If this government cannot win back any hearts as it inexorably breaks some others, then it will go into the 2014 campaign as a fairly handy underdog. You don't get many points in government for steadily doing nothing.

This is not to say the Opposition can sleep walk to victory. Far from it. Governments do not fall over on their own. Oppositions have to help push the government over, and also need to avoid various forms of idiocy in their own shops and have well-crafted alternative plans come the election campaign. My sense is both Labour and the Greens will be reasonably well positioned to play these roles in 2014. (Remember all that talk a couple of months ago about David Shearer’s leadership? Not so much chatter on that anymore.)

Current polling trends suggest the election will be close, but I expect the advantage will lie with the left.

It is now up to National to find a circuit breaker, a position John Key is not accustomed to.