A change of government this year is a real possibility – here's why

by Mike Williams / 10 February, 2017

Cartoon/Steve Bolton

The past nine years in New ­Zealand politics have been highly unusual. Never has a party been as dominant in the polls for as long as John Key’s National Party. This year promises a return to what used to be normality.

Over the next few months, we’ll find out how important the Key factor was in this long-running political ascendency.

He was, above all, a superb salesman whose self-confidence infected middle New Zealand. By contrast, right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton describes Bill English as a weak “retail politician”, which means he’s good at thinking up policies, but bad at selling them. We’ll see.

It’s a fair assumption that National will shed some support, and the interesting aspect of any realignment will be just where this goes.

English enters election year with the advantages of incumbency, a generally prosperous economy and a publicly united party behind him.

The likely snags he’ll strike are a revived Labour Party, a shortage of coalition partners and some serious unaddressed issues that his opponents will exploit.

First, commentators should have another look at the Labour Party. Political parties go through cycles of decline and rejuvenation. Renewal starts with their voluntary organisations, but few ­commentators, with the notable exception of Colin James, pay much attention to these, although they are crucially important to the party’s health and electability.


Also read Richard Prebble: Bill English is about to face troubles that John Key never had


A recently commissioned history of the Labour Party managed to entirely ignore the extra-parliamentary Labour Party, reducing the book to a chronicle of the Labour Party caucus. It’s interesting, but only half the story. These voluntary groups organise and run election campaigns, raise money, select candidates, contribute to broad policy positions and carry the party’s flag in pursuit of the all-important party vote.

When I spotted a large number of new young faces at the Labour Party’s 2016 annual conference, I realised this process of rejuvenation was well under way.

The combination of University of Auckland business school professor Nigel Haworth as party president and Andrew Kirton, who left a promising career in corporate affairs in London to become general secretary, is already transforming the organisation. Haworth has built support on the ruling Party Council and is assiduously courting potential donors, and Kirton has launched the organisation’s fundraising into cyber space.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been inveigled into credit-card donations for good party causes, but I know my total contributions in 2016 ran at six times those of the previous year.

A better field of candidates is evident this time, including tax expert Deborah Russell, who should get the New Lynn nomination; in Christchurch Central, Duncan Webb, a high-profile lawyer taking on the big insurance com­panies; Dr Liz Craig, a deeply committed medical researcher in Invercargill; and communications expert Anna Lorck in Tukituki. Further, perhaps surprising candidate announcements are due soon.

Extending dominance

Labour managed to swamp National with its on-the-ground campaign in Mt Roskill to the extent that National ran up the white flag in the coming Mt Albert by-election, but Labour will need to extend this dominance across the country and greatly improve its campaign for the election-deciding party vote.

National’s campaign manager, Steven Joyce, doesn’t place much store by these ground campaigns, despite being the victim of one at his first outing in 2005 when Labour’s face-to-face turnout strategy meant that National was pipped at the post.

Party-vote campaigns must focus on leaders, and although Andrew Little has sold himself well to his caucus colleagues and to the wider party, he will need to develop a three-dimensional non-threatening presence in the minds of middle New Zealand.

I know the man. He can do this.

The inevitable head-to-head tussle between major party leaders should be more even this time, and most commentators seem to assume that English’s performance on the campaign trail will be better than it was in 2002 when he led National to a crushing defeat. National’s campaign that year was indeed an unforgettable fiasco, but that was more down to inept management and bad ­organisation than the leader’s shortcomings.

With the advantage of incumbency, English will seek to hose down some damaging issues and will focus at least some of his surplus on the bleeding-sore issue of housing.

National’s ideological blinkers on this subject have left a yawning gap for Labour to exploit and, via Phil Twyford’s single-minded work on the issue, the party has made the most of this opportunity.

Watch for the return of direct state involvement in the affordable-house segment of the house-building market. This will be a big “dead rat” for National to swallow, but sagging poll numbers work wonders at reshaping ideologies.

More exposure

Immigration is a potentially game-changing issue.

Many of the quarter of a million voters who are properly enrolled but don’t bother to cast a ballot are the same alienated workers who swung the vote for “Brexit” and put Donald Trump into the White House.

Winston Peters will get a lot more exposure this time and there is solid evidence to support the contention that it’s the horde of low-skilled migrant workers that’s causing depressed wage growth. He has a credible track record opposing excessive immigration. Now and then he strikes a nerve. This could be his year.

A disadvantage that English can’t do much about is the weakness of National’s support parties. Act’s David Seymour has made a real mark, but it’s difficult to see his party, United Future or the Maori Party expanding their parliamentary presence.

All this adds up to a fascinating year.

Here’s a credible formula.

National’s party-vote share will drop at least by a bit, and maybe by quite a bit.

Labour’s party-vote share will rise to more like its 2014 electorate-vote score of 33%. If Little really fires and a revived organisation focuses on the party vote, Labour could even do a bit better than that.

The Greens have hit their percentage ceiling already, and New Zealand First has further room to grow.

Go figure.

A change of government is a real possibility.

Mike Williams is a former Labour Party president.

This article was first published in the February 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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