John Campbell: Voters moving away from Labour/National a striking change


This morning, a friend who knows politics as well as anyone in this country told me to take another glance at last night’s 1News Verian political poll. “Look at the centre”, she said.

Of course, the very idea of a “centre” is subjective. But we do tend to see New Zealand politics as a kind of musical chairs – in which Labour and National dance cravenly around a one-bum “centre”, the often nominal space between them, sometimes occupied by John Key with barbecue tongs and sometimes occupied by a Labour leader whose aspirations are loftier than a snarler in white bread but not so lofty that they drive the BBQ crowd away.

My friend was right.

With National on 35% and Labour on 33%, and both parties down two to get them there, the “centre” is at 68% of the decided vote. Thirty-two percent of voters are elsewhere.

In short, one New Zealand voter in three is now somewhere other than the two major parties.

This is striking.

The same poll, as recently as January, had National on 37% and Labour on 38%. That’s a total of 75%.

Election night 2020 had Labour on 50% and National on 25.6%. That’s a total of 75.6%.

Election night 2017 had National on 44.4% and Labour on 36.9%. That’s a total of 81.3%.

The last time there was an election in which the two major parties, aka the “centre”, received less than 70% of the vote, was in 2002. A generation ago.

What’s going on?

Well, Labour are a second-term Government looking like a third-term one. That is to say out of ideas, hostage to internal disarray, and so risk-averse they wouldn’t cross a road without focus-grouping the traffic.

And National, bless them, can’t even trounce that. “We all know the reason why”, wrote Matthew Hooton on his Patreon, this morning. (He’s referring to Christopher Luxon). “And populist but piddling policies like today’s pathetic offering from Luxon only risk National looking more unserious and unready for government.”

(The “piddling” and “pathetic” offering Hooton was referencing, by the way, was National’s inexplicable suggestion that poor young students could “free up cash”from their KiwiSaver accounts to pay landlords rental bond. What? Wasn’t Marie Antoinette available to offer them cake?)

The beneficiaries of this are ACT, currently polling at 12%, the Greens, on 10%, and Te Pāti Māori, New Zealand First and The Opportunities Party, combining for a not insignificant 8% between them.

Of course, we live with MMP politics. A vote for Green is a vote for Green, yes, but it’s also a vote for a Labour-Green government. Likewise, a vote for ACT is a vote for a National-ACT Government. And it wasn’t long ago that National gifted ACT the Epsom electorate, in the kind of hand-up manipulation that ACT are so vigorously opposed to, except, apparently, when they benefit from it themselves.

But neither National nor Labour want a dog with a big tail. MMP is the system, but something resembling First Past the Post dominance is the ideal. I mean, look at the bold, fearless and transformative agenda Labour has been able to enact since receiving 50% of the vote less than three years ago. (That was sarcasm, by the way, for any kindly souls who may have missed it).

From 50% to 33%. In the normal course of events, if Labour fell that dramatically National would be ordering the champagne and devils on horseback, and Maggie Barry would be shaping a giant N out of buxus for the stage on election night.

But, and time will tell, National aren’t romping ahead.

Polls aren’t always right. Particularly not this far out. And there’s still enough time for either party to blow it. Or, even more surprisingly, to do something truly inspiring support.

I keep wondering if the paint-by-numbers banality of much of what constitutes the centre at present will engender a kind of ennui in some Labour and National voters. Will people even bother to vote?

Really, if you’re frothing at the mouth with enthusiasm to vote for either Labour or National at the moment, you’re possibly a singularly tribal soul who hates the other lot.

I keep talking to Labour supporters whose justification for remaining tribe Labour is that National are worse. (“Labour. Not as bad as National.” There’s a billboard in that.)

I keep talking to National supporters whose justification for remaining tribe National is that Labour are worse. (“National. We can’t be any worse then them.” Truly. Who needs an advertising agency?)

Whatever that kind of abandonment of hope speaks of, that disempowering expediency, it’s surely not the kind of politics that attracts outsiders to your tribe.

That kind of energy, the audacity of policy, the understanding that the meanly dulled centre is not the place for them, is where the “minor” parties are gathering support.

So, National and Labour battle it out for the honour of being toughest on youth crime. What a desultory ambition. (Chris v. Chris. There can be only one dimmer.) Seemingly, addressing the causes of youth crime has proven beyond their ambition or ability?

And the electorate, increasingly, wanders off in search of other options. It’s not a revolutionary departure. But, it’s happening. National and Labour each down two points. Not to each other, but to someone else.

“The centre cannot hold.”

Everyone who does first year Eng Lit at university will read (or maybe not read) an anthology which contains that great line by WB Yeats, from his poem, The Second Coming.

It’s a century old now and still seems vital, true and even frightening.

I thought of it, this morning, when my friend alerted me to the centre not holding.

Yeats was writing a poem against extremes. Against the collapse of the centre, or its loss, or the lack of courage from the people who occupy it. These brilliant lines:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

That remains terribly true.

But maybe, with Labour and National, the centre isn’t holding because it’s offering so little to hold to.

What do Labour and National stand for? Really?

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is a growing section of the electorate saying – you’re almost as bad as each other.

Sometimes when a business is growing, it needs a little help.

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