House Of Winning Cards? A perfect psephological storm threatens Labour with electoral humiliation and offers National the prospect of an unparalleled and crushing victory.
UNLESS SOMETHING HUGELY DRAMATIC HAPPENS between now and polling day, 20 September, the General Election of 2014 is all but over. The National-led government of Prime Minister, John Key, looks set to be returned for a third term by a margin that may surprise many of those currently insisting that the result will be very close. What may also surprise is the sheer scale and comprehensiveness of the Left’s (especially Labour’s) electoral humiliation.
By which dark paths must one travel to reach these gloomy (for the Left!) conclusions? Simply stated, one has only to follow the basic precepts of psephology (the study of elections and electors).
No matter whether you approach the forthcoming election from the perspective of the socio-economic context of the contest; contrasting styles of political leadership; the policies of the major players; the parties’ organisational heft and their respective financial resources; or the many factors influencing turnout; the advantage lies decisively with the National Party.
Let’s examine each of these factors in turn.
With most opinion pollsters recording three-fifths to two-thirds of voters saying the country is “heading in the right direction” it is clear that the run of generally positive news stories about the New Zealand economy are rebounding to National’s advantage. To those with secure paid employment and/or comfortable incomes, these reports offer no compelling reason for a change of government.
Yes, of course, there are 285,000 children living in poverty and 150,000 people out of work, but by and large these are the most socially marginalised and politically inert members of New Zealand society. They are consequently also the most likely to stay at home on election day. In the absence of the “hugely dramatic” intervention alluded to above – something big enough to propel them back into the electoral process – poor Kiwis simply won’t be counted.
In terms of political leadership, National is especially blessed. Most New Zealanders like John Key. In spite of his enormous wealth, he strikes a staggeringly large number of voters as an “ordinary bloke” who shares their values and understands their aspirations. His stand-up comedian’s ability to use humour as both sword and shield generally frees him from the onerous duties of detailed explanation and justification.
Labour’s leadership problems are the mirror-image of National’s. David Cunliffe is not yet understood or, sadly, much liked by the electorate. He simply doesn’t come across as an ordinary bloke – quite the reverse in fact – and the pollsters have yet to detect the sort of wholesale buy-in to the Opposition leader’s values and aspirations that presages a decisive shift in ideological allegiances. Neither is Cunliffe helped by his bizarre propensity to withhold politically relevant information from the public. Nothing arouses a journalist’s fury faster than a politician’s failure to supply the whole story.
Labour’s policy manifesto has yet to make the critical transition from sea-anchor to mainsail. Among its core supporters there are significant doubts surrounding its proposals to lift the age of eligibility for superannuation; impose a Capital Gains Tax and support (at least in principle) the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Its radical plans for curbing rising electricity prices may produce a surge in popularity as higher tariffs advance in step with Winter’s chill. The risk is that it will be too little and too late.
National’s policy stance, by contrast, is presented as nothing more than the small but necessary course corrections that all governments are required to make. Mr Key’s strategy of making haste slowly on these little things while seeking an electoral mandate for the big things (like partial privatisation) goes a long way to explaining his government’s enduring lead in the opinion polls.
That lead has cemented-in National’s easy relationship with the news media – a rapport which can only now be undermined by a blinding succession of Government own-goals and an equally impressive run of Labour successes. Failing these, not even Labour’s superior on-the-ground campaigning skills can hope to upset a National Campaign Manager of Steven Joyce’s experience. Matt McCarten is a wily battlefield commander, but logistically-speaking Labour is in a parlous state. Money isn’t everything when it comes to winning elections – but it sure helps.
All of which brings us down to the day itself.
Month after month of favourable polls; a leader careful to build his footpaths where people walk; policies which voters either hardly notice or readily endorse; and a war-chest more than equal to the challenge of exploiting all these substantial advantages will not only have National’s supporters in a triumphant temper, but they will also have induced a profound demoralisation among their opponents.
Election Day 2014 – barring that big surprise – will, therefore, likely see National’s supporters marching proudly, as to a political coronation, while Labour and Green supporters, convinced they’ve already lost, deliver John Key an unparalleled National victory and the psephologists a record low turnout.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 March 2014.