A mere month ago the left was riding on a wave of unfamiliar optimism. Labour had achieved a new high in the monthly Roy Morgan poll of 33%, and when combined with potential coalition partners in the Green Party had the numbers to form government with one other political grouping – New Zealand First or the Maori Party would get them across the line. The polls had rebounded in their favour following a triumphant local elections which saw Labour-affiliated and Labour-backed mayors win the mayoralty in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Whanganui and Rotorua.
Come December and the polls have completely turned around in National’s favour, with the Labour Party reaching a two-year low of 23%. In the latest Roy Morgan poll, the left cobbles together just 37% support, Labour leader Andrew Little sits at 8% and whilst Prime Minister John Key’s personal popularity has never been lower, his support still towers that of his opponents. Crucially, and perhaps shattering of past theories that the government’s popularity was down to the personal appeal of John Key, support for the National government and confidence in the economy continues to rise despite Key’s decline.
This had led to arguably early conversations over who might replace Key as Prime Minister, with the potential contenders being Upper Harbour MP, cabinet minister and centre-right moderate Paula Bennett and campaign manager Steven Joyce, with rumours of the party’s right-wing mounting a comeback either through Judith Collins or Maurice Williamson fading, as the latter has already announced his resignation from parliament.
New Zealand’s left struggling to make headway in a reforming political-sphere is not unique; it’s a global trend, although the reasons for that change here are in contrast to Europe, North America and Australia. Following global uncertainty and the erosion of globalist policy with the election of Donald Trump as President in the United States and the United Kingdom exiting the European union, and more recently the Kaikoura earthquake and the reality of yet another earthquake recovery phase, Kiwis are seeking something different from government. Increasingly, the desire appears to be for stability and status quo as opposed to reform and change, and this plays into the government’s hands. The National Party is running on no major new policy proposals after occupying government for almost a decade, instead the leadership is teasing the electorate with potential tax cuts and continuously changing what form that might come in.
Either way, it isn’t radical. And that is the intention.
The National Party, at its current rate will return to government with the likely support of the ACT Party who hold the safe seat of Epsom through its leader, David Seymour. Peter Dunne, the United Future MP for the marginal north Wellington seat of Ohariu will have a harder time with Labour and the Greens striking a deal in the electorate.
Irritatingly for the left, their recent burst isn’t the first time they’ve been led to have their hopes raised. David Cunliffe, who in the end led the party to its worst defeat in a century, once scored a 40% rating in the polls. Similarly, David Shearer, his predecessor, also looked ready for government. The National Party’s ability to regroup and reposition in the final months before the election is becoming a tradition, as Labour makes a habit of choking when it comes down to the wire.
The main issue arises as Labour losing a core constituency. What’s left of the white, working class electorate now primarily finds its support divided among the National and (increasingly) New Zealand First parties, as Labour adopts a more socially liberal platform, appealing more to urban middle-class voters. However, this electorate is splintered evenly between National, Labour and the Greens, and Labour’s mixed messaging and bursts of conservatism around some policies such as immigration turns liberal voters off. The Pacifica vote in South Auckland remains the only strong Labour voter base, with cracks starting to appear there too. Labour is hopelessly off-message, and confused as anyone as to whom they want to be a voice for.
National has held its support among its traditional supporters in the farming and business communities, and branched out and related well with new electorates.
The other issue often brought up by media commentators and centrist figures is today’s Labour party is leaning ‘too far to the left’, proposing such policies as three years free university education when most voters are seeking non-ambitious policy. This has been particularly remarked upon given the recent resignation of party stalwart and former popular Porirua mayor Nick Leggett, who is described as a ‘practical pragmatist’ (his words). Worse, the media has blown Leggett’s defection to National infinitely out of proportion, with the Stuff.co.nz website writing that it would “rattle Labour”. The Labour president, Nigel Howarth responded by posting on his Facebook, simply “No it won’t”.
Whether Stuff’s summarisation even has a remote grain of truth to it is irrelevant. What matters is the media’s perception of Labour has changed, and the rhetoric that Labour has drifted ‘too far to the left’ is being repeated by voters who may or may not be able to point to anything specifically that shows this drift. Furthermore, it has enabled them to spark new rumours that “former and sitting Labour MPs” are considering jumping ship to National. Is that true? The Stuff article that insists it references nothing more than a cheeky, to-the-side comment by the Prime Minister. But that hardly matters. What matters is there is no positive spin in the rumours for Labour, and they find themselves stuck and struggling for positive press less than a year out from voters deciding who they want to lead government.
Overseas Australia counts itself as one of the few countries in the English-speaking world where the centre-left seems likely to return to government any time soon. Whilst the centre-right Liberal government was returned to government in 2016, Labor has enjoyed a series of large state-level election wins and gains. However, there is an increasing lurch to the right of politics mirroring recent American and European tendencies. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party is aiming to win upwards of fifty seats in next Queensland state election, which could be held as soon as next year. The surge comes off the back of growing islamophobia in Australia, although not to the same intensity as Europe where far-right, anti-Islam parties now lead in opinion polls in several countries.
In France, the likelihood of a centre to centre-left candidate making it to the final round of voting seems sketchy, as the focus turns to the centre-right and far-right. Polls show the likely centre-right candidate winning against the far-right Le Pen by 70-30. But the left is increasingly out of the picture. The approval rating of incumbent Socialist Francois Hollande has recently shot down to a humiliating 4% – the most unpopular President in French history.
In Germany the far-right sentiment is quieter, albeit louder than it was previously. But the centre-right, although bruised following its adoption of a more liberal policy on refugees, looks as if it will hold power next year under the leadership of Angela Merkel. There hasn’t been a centre-left led government in the country since Merkel’s rise to power in 2005. The far-right and the centre-right also continue to exchange leads in the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.
With Australia among the small group countries where centre or centre left parties maintain the lead is Canada, where Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party Justin Trudeau recently celebrated his party’s first year anniversary in government. After initially recording huge leads over the leaderless Conservatives in opinion polls, a series of gaffes, policy backtracks and unpopular decisions have seen the party’s lead collapse 11 points in a fortnight. What remains to be seen is whether Trudeau’s recent Castro gaffe has made any difference. In the most recent EKOS poll, the Conservatives jumped 6 points to 31%, ahead of the party’s leadership election next year. It comes as CNN contributor Van Jones, on a recent visit to Canada, warned Canada was not exempt from a potential “whitelash” – the term Jones used to describe Donald Trump’s popular support in the presidential election this year.
A “whitelash” being a bite-back of white, mainly working class voters, who object to changing economic conditions and ‘politically correct’ stances from left parties. The Liberal Party was recently attacked for launching a campaign against offensive jokes, as being out of touch with major issues.
The left isn’t dead, but its situation is now critical. In New Zealand, factional in-fighting is a major problem for the Labour Party, which has emerged from confusion of exactly what the party stands for and who it is there to serve. The current desire from the electorate appears to be for moderate, stable politics in the face of uncertainty. First and foremost, the Labour Party needs to have faith in their leadership if they want voters to do the same. The Labour Party should start to be ambitious over capturing the middle ground, whilst continuing to put the heat on the government in areas where its weak – housing and poverty. Meanwhile, in other parts of the globe, the answer may be to reconnect with the working classes, whilst rejecting growing xenophobia adopted by the far-right.
– Bennett Morgan, Capital HardTalk.