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Chris Hipkins
Chris Hipkins

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 22, 2023

What does Labour do now?

Chris Hipkins
Chris Hipkins

The trajectory is unmistakable, and Chris Hipkins is running out of options, writes Toby Manhire.

There was a grim augury for the government in the commentary that came with a poll at the start of last month. The analysis from Talbot Mills – Labour’s pollsters, but in this instance accompanying their survey for corporate clients – was that “after a long period of very close results”, a 31% result for Labour, trailing National by four points, suggested “we may now be seeing the long-expected breakout of the centre-right.”

It continued: “The next few polls will tell. The centre-left had seemed to have been defying the political gravity of a generally negative mood; the acute political pressures stemming from cost of living rises and cascading ministerial scandals.”

There goes gravity. Last night’s poll by Verian for 1News had Labour down four points on the previous month’s edition to 29%. National was up a couple to 37%. Add Act’s 13% and the putative right coalition was away laughing, on numbers that, if mirrored on election day, would provide a healthy parliamentary majority. The good news continued for National: New Zealand First under 4%, and even if you tweaked the numbers to give them the 5% required to hit the threshold, National and Act would not need to talk to Winston Peters.

“The result gives National great momentum to take into the campaign period,” said the party’s campaign chair, Chris Bishop, in a message to supporters last night shaking the tin for more donations, and no one could reasonably argue with that.

Momentum can travel in either direction. The last time Labour rated a number beginning in 2 in polling for 1News was July 2017, results that proved the catalyst for the departure of Andrew Little and the promotion of his deputy, Jacinda Ardern, to the leadership, just less than two months out from the election. Today – just less than two months out from the election – there is no serious prospect of Hipkins being replaced. Apart from anything else, those “cascading ministerial scandals” removed the only two MPs who might have, at a stretch, been persuaded to entertain some 11th-hour change of the guard, Michael Wood and Kiritapu Allan.

It is not as if Luxon or National are setting the electorate alight. A nationwide ennui can be found in the combined figure for National and Labour of 66% – 66%! – the lowest in this poll for 21 years. The “preferred prime minister” category has never felt more like damning with faint preference. Just 21% of respondents in last night’s poll went for the Chris of the red team, and 20% for the Chris of the blue. That’s six in 10 who choose no Chris at all, whose true preference, I’m guessing, is to curl up and hibernate until this is all over.

What matters with polls is the pattern, and the pattern as far as Labour is concerned in this poll is clear enough. January, after the Hipkins bounce: 38%. March: 36%. May 35%. July: 33%. August: 29%.

Where do Hipkins and Labour go from here? The Labour leader sought to stress yesterday that they had been busy governing, that the campaign had barely begun. That's true in part, though it is equally true that the wind was thoroughly taken out of the sails of Labour's first big policy announcement, removing GST from fresh fruit and vegetables, partly because Nicola Willis announced it, and partly because it was just a bit crap, as pretty well everyone, including recent-past Grant Robertson, observed.

Hipkins also said yesterday, in a sign of tactics sure to be amplified in the weeks ahead, that "we’re up against what would be the most radical rightwing government, National-Act, that New Zealand’s seen since Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.” As Steven Joyce observes in his new memoir, On the Record, elections are in many ways about contrasts, and that is the contrast Labour will increasingly be seeking to draw: the imperfect but moderate lot you know versus the Seymour-tail wagging the Luxon-dog.

For his part, Luxon is no doubt hoping his former nextdoor-neighbour cuts back on the explosive jokes in the weeks that are left. He certainly looked tetchy when asked at a roadshow meeting last week about his presumed deputy prime minister's Guy Fawkes "fantasy" involving the Ministry of Pacific Peoples.

Hipkins has previously declined a more profound contrast. Before the budget, he looked at the idea of a tax switch to trade a tax-free threshold for a wealth tax and bring about a modest but paradigm-nudging realignment of the system. He examined the evidence, considered the advice and said not just no but never-ever-ever, not so long as he is leader.

The caution-first approach is understandable. The economic weather sucks. Labour has accordingly located many of its bigger, costly promises, such as the Working for Families abatement extension and four weeks of paid partner leave, in a sunnier future some years hence. That's the prudent thing to do, no doubt. But as long as your ambition is mapped out for not this year, not next, not even the year after that, why not do something properly bold? Take, for example, the strange anomaly that means universal health care applies to our whole bodies except the big orifice on our face. Why not promise free dental care for all, staged so it kicks in fully by the year of Labour's promised land, 2026?

Labour members of parliament are very aware of what that pattern – 38%, 36%, 35%, 33%, 29% – means for them, whether collectively in seeking a third term or personally in holding on to a seat. That brings a gravity of its own: splinters in discipline, demands for a strategic rethink. Grant Robertson is very much, as he has noted more than once, a team player, but after what happened with the tax switch that wasn't and the GST boondoggle that was, you could hardly blame him if his body is already ninth-tenths of the way out of the building. Hipkins is going to need him, and the rest, on all cylinders if Labour is to have any chance of turning the momentum around. In that cause, their best hope is exposing some shortcoming, sleight of hand or, yes, OK, some hole, in National's tax and spend numbers, when they emerge in the next week or so.

Hipkins will get a second wind. There is every chance he'll best his National counterpart in the live debate spotlight. But Luxon is getting better, more match-fit, by the day. It may be too late by then. Really what Labour is relying on at this point is a policy thunderbolt to match the interest-free-student-loan pledge of 2005. That, and National stepping on a giant rake.

Keep going!