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Chris Ford: Will the tide turn against National? But will it turn in favour of Labour?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 Last Monday, I heard a very salient observation from right-wing political commentator Matthew Hooton. He commented on Radio New Zealand National's Monday politics segment that 'National looked more like a third term government' but about Labour he felt 'that they looked like a first term opposition that had just lost the election' rather than a government-in-waiting.

I couldn't have agreed more.

National has been having one hell of a year. They have been caught out by an increasingly gloomy economic outlook, tepid Christchurch earthquake recovery effort, the ACC and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade scandals, the John Banks Dotcomgate saga, the school class sizes row, growing opposition to asset sales, and now the appallingly mishandled Christchurch schools restructuring proposal. 

But for National, the solution has been to whip up a batch of wolf whistle politics policy announcements targeting unpopular groups and, voila, electoral popularity retained! You only need to tell people that welfare beneficiaries need to be work and drug tested to exhaustion, that refugee boat people could one day (theoretically) start showing up on our shores, that we need more new jails (while at the same time planning to reduce recidivism and incarceration rates), and that those bloody Maoris want to own all the air, sea and land imaginable, and no problem, with an anxious electorate, telling them about imagined enemies both from within and without stirs up the blood levels. 

Meanwhile, Labour, with a leader whose presentational skills are about as good as that of legendary Australian advertising creation from the 80's, Elliot Gobb's, struggles to keep up. First, John Pagani and others advise him that it might be good idea to talk about imagined sickness beneficiaries painting on roofs as a counter wolf-whistle tactic to say to so-called Waitakere Man 'hey, we're just as concerned as you and National are about bludgers too.' That tactic didn't work as National does wolf and dog whistle/wedge politics so much better than Labour does. After all, it's a common Tory tactic to divide and rule your opponent's supporters. Second, and when that doesn't work, try and make up with the beneficiary community by vehemently opposing Paula Bennett's Social Security (Work Focus) Amendment Bill that brings in odious provisions like drug testing for beneficiaries and work testing for sick and disabled people who either can't work temporarily or find work at all because they are being continually discriminated against. I must confess that Labour made some great speeches in the House last week with Social Development Spokesperson Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Leader Grant Robertson (along with the Greens) doing so on this issue.

But the one problem for me with Labour remains this - their leader attacks beneficiaries one week and then some of their key frontbench MPs supports them the next. What's up with Labour? How consistent does this make them look in policy terms? After all, David Shearer defended his beneficiary on the roof speech again only a few weeks ago while confessing that he had never had the conversation with the neighbour he quoted in his speech. Obviously, John Pagani's departure for Oil and Gas New Zealand might have something to do with this change of heart. But still, the challenge for Labour is to be not only brave and bold but consistent. And it's this inconsistency that is a turn off for undecided, middle ground voters and is concerning for its base of poorer voters. On top of Shearer's ongoing presentational deficits, all this spells good news for the Greens, New Zealand First and National and bad news for Labour at a time when it should really be performing well in the polls.

That's why I predict that National will continue to enjoy a reasonably respectable lead in the polls for the rest of this year and into next. I don't like that prospect anymore than us losing the next Rugby World Cup but there it is! Their support may well slip a little but any soft National support that flakes off will likely end up with New Zealand First, the Greens or even the fledgling Conservatives and not so much with Labour. Admittedly, Labour have picked up by an average of five percentage points on their 2011 election figure in recent polls but, apart from a slight bounce following the class sizes fiasco, they have effectively stalled. 

But one soothing factor for the left is that the gap between centre-left and centre-right parties has considerably narrowed since the election. The centre-left block of Labour, the Greens and Mana have picked up by around seven percentage points and while not yet in front of the centre-right National, ACT, and United Future bloc, these trends look promising for 2014. However, I expect that who forms the next government will be determined by New Zealand First, the Maori Party and (if they make it) the Conservatives. And, on balance, they will favour National over Labour.

So, all National needs to do now is dump John Banks, score a win against the Maori Council in the courts, continue beneficiary bashing and they may scrape through in 2014. The task for Labour and the left, though, is to state that this country doesn't need division, it needs to be brought together but not through targeting vulnerable and easy-to-attack groups. While I'm arguing that things look difficult for Labour going forward, it doesn't necessarily have to be this way. All they need to do is that, unlike the government, it should address ordinary people's concerns about jobs, rising electricity and housing prices, school closures, health and social service cuts and asset sales in a more consistent, clearly communicated manner. And that might mean, for Labour, dumping its leader at the first opportunity in 2013. Then, with a strong opposition leader (either David Cunliffe or Grant Robertson), John Key and the right can be challenged head on by a strengthened Labour Party. This factor, in turn, could finally re-invigorate the entire centre-left opposition leading to the tide being turned against National and in favour of Labour going into 2014. 

And that's what I'd like to see. However, the reality looks bleak for the time being and, absent any leadership change or better communication/political strategy from Labour, National still look on course for another narrow win in 2014.

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