Thomas Coughlan: What is Labour without Covid?

OPINION:

Political polls are a bit like the prophecies of the ancient oracle at Delphi. Each one is cryptic enough to mean whatever you want it to mean – the gift is in the interpretation.

For Labour, the year’s steady erosion of support (its polling has crashed by a fifth since the election a year ago) isn’t the message it wants you to take from the latest polls.

Instead, leader Jacinda Ardern said the combined polling of Labour and its “traditional” ally, the Greens (this will be news to Labour’s actual traditional governing ally, NZ First) showed confidence in the Government remained strong.

Likewise, National leader Judith Collins looked beyond her own low polling (which would give National one of its worst results in history) to say that combined with Act, the right bloc is narrowing the gap with the left.

Both leaders should disabuse themselves of these false prophecies.

Labour’s soft polling is evidence the broad Covid coalition the party cobbled together last year is starting to crumble.

That should not give Collins cause for false optimism. Her predicament is a near analogy of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles racing the tortoise: National and Act seem to always be narrowing the gap, but never closing it. Her caucus colleagues will remember the nine years Labour and the Greens wasted making the same argument.

The fact remains MMP elections are almost always close; the gap between the two blocs remains a chasm National appears unlikely to bridge.

The last three recent polls, Talbot-Mills, Taxpayers’ Union-Curia, and 1 News-Colmar Brunton, tell the story of an increasingly pessimistic country; Talbot-Mills showed a large majority of people feel negatively about the economy (57 per cent – an inversion on a long run trend), the Covid response (46 per cent, down from 60), and believe the worst of the pandemic is “still to come” (75 per cent).

The Curia poll found most people feel the country is on the wrong track.

New Zealanders appear to be grumpy, but, perplexingly, that grumpiness isn’t yet translating into support for a National-led alternative.

Labour faces the challenge of working out what it can successfully do that isn’t related to the pandemic: where, after all, is Labour truly successful beyond Covid?

Last year’s election was a Covid election – and no doubt elements of the pandemic will define the next election too, but there’s good reason to believe bread-and-butter gripes will resurface in 2023: education, health, welfare, justice tax, transport, the cost of housing.

Labour’s winning electoral position on these issues is far more precarious than we often think.

Between the 2017 election and the pandemic, National was the largest party in 10 of the 14 1 News-Colmar Brunton polls – in all but one of those polls, National was polling higher than Labour is today.

The trend is similar in the Newshub-Reid Research Poll.

The nadir was early 2020, when despite the responses to the March 15 and Whakaari disasters, multiple polls had National-Act edging out the coalition.

In most of those polls, the Labour-NZ First-Green Government survived by the collective polling of those three parties, one of which has now disappeared from Parliament and is unlikely to make a return.

One of the great unanswered questions in politics right now is what the electoral landscape looks like for Labour without NZ First – particularly when the Covid gloss starts to wear off. Since 2002, Labour has only managed to form one Government (the current one) without Winston Peters’ help.

Where his former supporters will land is an open question, but if some of it heads rightwards, it poses an electoral problem for Labour and the wider left.

This is a problem Labour is at least partly aware of. Your columnist was recently briefed that Labour’s heartland backbench had adopted the Winstonian mantle, requiring policy proposals to be circulated more seriously to caucus before final sign-off.

These new MPs know they’re not in it for the long haul (the Labour machine long ago began pastoral care for marginal MPs, encouraging some to draw up plans for what life might look like after Parliament), and they know they’re powerless without their popular leader, but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful to connect the party with the stale, suburban and rural centre to which it must cling.

Labour also needs to work out its delivery issues. One of Ardern’s virtues is her belief in building broad political consensus for meaningful and lasting change: think bipartisan accords on child poverty, climate change legislation, and urban planning.

She’s right these changes will be lasting, but the problem is by the time any of these changes start to bear fruit, there’s a good chance Ardern will be out of Government. Other, more immediate attempts to deliver have been met with high-profile failure.

The problem for the Labour party minus Covid is that the mere existence of the virus in New Zealand makes it more difficult to deliver on just about anything.

From a review into how to improve KiwiRail’s future as an SOE, to school curriculum changes, to mental health spending, Covid has frustrated the Government’s agenda at every turn. Labour as a Government needs to gear up to show voters why they’re the party for the recovery, and not just the crisis.

Many in National are getting ready to argue the same thing, drawing a line under the party’s miserable pandemic polling and hoping the electorate will set its eyes on a National-led future in the new year.

The party is licking its lips at the renewed focus on justice, brought about by the role of gangs in spreading the virus beyond Auckland, the Government’s decision to forge ahead with repealing three strikes legislation, and reluctance to evict state house tenants.

Pre-pandemic internal polling found the party did well on justice, and some MPs reckon it could do well again. Another issue National might reignite is housing. Judith Collins has tied herself to an accord with the Government over new densification rules, frustrating many of National’s Auckland MPs. It’s not impossible to envisage a change in position, or perhaps a light policy fudge, were Collins to be rolled before the end of the year.

Labour is not naive to the need to articulate a vision for the future. In the dying days of the 2020 campaign, hours after Ardern edged out Collins in the final leaders debate and with polls predicting a landslide, senior staffers were urging caution, knowing the gloss wouldn’t last.

The party needs to quickly articulate what that future looks like, before other parties take that future out of their hands.

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