Jacinda Ardern speaks to media after becoming Labour leader on August 1, 2017. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The three factors driving the swing back to National

Last night’s poll suggests the election might be slipping away from Labour. Former National cabinet minister Wayne Mapp gives his perspective on the slide.

Wednesday’s TV1 poll confirmed a trend of the last two weeks. That voters are shifting back to National. Of course a poll is only a poll – it might be wrong. We will all know on Saturday.

But let’s suppose the polls reflect actual voter intentions. Why has the swing back happened?

In my view there are three reasons. First, Labour announced way too many taxes in the first week of the campaign. Second, National raised real questions about the robustness of Labour’s proposed three year budget. Third, Jacinda Ardern has backtracked on too many things, raising questions about whether she is yet ready for the top job. That maybe 2020 will be a better time for her to become prime minister.

Taking each of those in turn.

In the first week Labour announced: a tax on water at an undetermined level; a tax on petrol, at least in Auckland; a higher cost ETS; and potential for an ill-defined capital gains tax; along with a possibility of land taxes and wealth taxes. While each have their own justifications, the welter of them raised the traditional spectre of Labour being the “tax and spend” party. It also played into a subtext of voter suspicion. That Labour thinks economic growth is on auto-pilot, and nothing they do will affect it. Many voters, especially those who have voted National in the past, know that is probably not true.

The second issue has been fraught with controversy. Steven Joyce, strongly supported by Bill English, has said there is a $11 billion hole in Labour’s budget. That it was not believable that Labour could have no new spending in 2019 and 2020, except in health and education. The $11 billion is National’s assessment of what Labour would actually spend. Basically it is $3.5 billion per year. How does that make $11 billion?

Because the $3.5 billion spent in 2019 is base-lined into the 2020 budget and then the 2020 budget gets another $3.5 billion.  So it is $3.5 billion in 2019, and $7 billion in 2020 representing the $3.5 billion base-lined from 2019 plus $3.5 billion new spending in 2020.

This analysis was very credible to me, having been involved in many budget debates. National’s strategy has been to talk directly to the voters on this issue and to ignore the views of the pundits and media commentators. The strategy is built on the implicit understanding that many voters naturally see Labour as a tax and spend party.

The third issue has been very difficult for Jacinda Ardern. It seems perfectly plausible to listen to voter feedback and respond accordingly. So deferring a CGT, among other things, would have seemed a very reasonable thing to do. But it also has a risk. Do voters actually want their leaders to reverse strongly held stances (captain’s calls) so readily? It seems to me voters also expect their leaders to be certain on things, to ride through adverse feedback. That part of leadership is providing a sure and steady course, especially on issues central to the philosophy of a political party.

There is an art to it. John Key got a lot of support by reversing mining in National Parks. But he also knew what he should not back down on. At no time did he listen to the criticism on asset sales, a central issue for National during the 2011 election campaign. Surely CGT is as least as important for Labour?

Polls are just polls. We will know on Saturday whether they have accurately measured voter sentiment.

Then the coalition talks will begin. It might be a couple of weeks before we know who will be forming the government. But I am certain it will not take the six weeks that it took in 1996. All the main players are much more adept at MMP politics than 20 years ago.

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