Why National will form the next New Zealand Government
Labour has a very big mountain to climb to have any chance of achieving a second term
(I originally wrote this article for the New Zealand Herald. It was published on February 24 2020)
Up until recently, questioning the inevitability of a second term of office for the Labour / NZ First Coalition Government has been treated as heresy by most political commentators. Afterall – Jacinda is hugely popular – so popular that there is no serious contender to her in the Preferred Prime Minister rankings. Add to that the fact that you have to go right back to 1975 to find the last time a Government has been kicked out after just one term and their confidence seems justified. Sure, NZ First is currently polling below 5% in the polls – but Winston always pulls it out of the hat in election year and will do so again this time – or so the narrative goes.
On first blush, this reasoning looks rock solid – but is it? I’m a strong believer that the numbers will generally tell the true story – so let’s examine the claims.
“The preferred prime minister ratings are virtually irrelevant because we vote for parties not Presidents”
Despite being a favourite of the media – the preferred prime minister ratings are virtually irrelevant because we vote for parties not Presidents. This means that the important number is the party vote and, while no single poll should be treated as authoritative, most recent polls show National ahead as the most popular party in the country – and the trend of the polls is all in their direction.
The claim regarding the inevitability of second terms is more interesting. It’s true that every party which won an election between 1975 and 2014 went on to form a Government and subsequently went on to a second, and sometimes third term. However, this isn’t what happened in 2017. National won that election, easily beating the other contenders to be the most popular party in Parliament – but wasn’t able to form a Government because NZ First chose to go with Labour. This was the first time, in the MMP era, that the most popular party was unable to form a Government and means that the traditional wisdom around the inevitability of a second term no longer applies because the party which won the last election isn’t represented in the Coalition.
“The claim that NZ First will stage a miraculous comeback from its low poll ratings isn’t supported by history”
The third claim – that NZ First will stage a miraculous comeback from its low poll ratings – also isn’t supported by history. In fact, NZ Firsts worst election results both occurred during an election following a term when it was in coalition – 4.25% in 1999 following a term in coalition with National, and 4.07% in 2008 following its coalition with Labour. This history, coupled with a series of controversies dogging the party during this term, and an announcement by Bridges that he will not work with them, all suggest that it is extremely unlikely that NZ First will make it back into Parliament.
“Labour and the Greens, combined, still achieved fewer votes than National in 2017”
This substantially changes the math and means that Labour has a big mountain to climb if it is to achieve a second term. Both Labour and the Greens – which, between them, still achieved fewer votes than National in 2017 – would each have to substantially increase their share of the party vote in order to make up the NZ First votes which put them into power in 2017. Certainly this has been done before – Labour actually increased its winning 1999 vote in 2002, and National did the same in 2011 – but these were both extremely popular first term Governments with solid wins and a track record of achievements to back up their claim to a second term. Few but the most partisan would claim the same of Labour in this term where little has been achieved and flagship policies have mostly been unmitigated disasters.
It’s also worth noting that the highest party vote that Labour has achieved in the past 30 years is 41% – and that was under Helen Clark at the height of her powers. Ardern is no Clark.
By comparison, the history is all on Nationals side. Remember, this is a party which achieved 47% of the party vote in 2011 and 2014. If it can mop up the bulk of the almost 3% of votes which went to TOP, United Future and the Conservative Party in 2017 it could easily achieve similar numbers in 2020. This, combined with ACTs support and the lions share of the reallocated ‘wasted vote’ (mostly from NZ First) should be enough to get the Nats over the line.
None of this is guaranteed, of course – and there are 6 months between now and the election – but history, the numbers, and the odds all point to new tenants in the Beehive by Christmas..