Labour has closed the gap with National on cost of living, while climate change is judged a critical issue by more than ever before.
The rejuvenation of the National Party in 2022 was illustrated not just by the absence of blood-letting and the head-to-head polling trajectories. The resurgence of the party under Christopher Luxon was revealed in another important measure of the public mood: the Ipsos Issues Monitor.
The Issues Monitor, based on polling undertaken three times a year, surveys, like it says on the tin, the issues rated most important by New Zealanders, as well as which political parties people consider most capable of managing them.
Rewind to the middle of 2021, not long after Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government was freshly reelected with a historic majority, amid an ongoing Covid crisis and a fractious opposition. Across those top 10 issues, the red wave couldn’t have been more clear.
One year later, that board looked very different. Inflation and cost of living had leapt to the top of the list of concerns, and National was judged best to deal with it. But it wasn’t just that. Across six of the 10 issues judged most important (and five of the top six), National was considered the best equipped to respond. Labour was left with just two spots, as was the Green Party. In sum, it told you why National was winning.
Yesterday, Ipsos published results from a new Issues Monitor. The pendulum has swung back towards Labour, which can now boast five spots in the top of the issues pops, compared with National’s four. Importantly, National remains the party considered best able to deal with the most critical issue – the issue that remains the dominant challenge in the leadup to the election – the cost of living. More on that in a moment, but since the last survey in September, Labour has retaken the lead on housing and on petrol prices, the latter an implicit endorsement of the decision to extend the fuel excise cut.
Across the top 20 issues identified in the Monitor, Labour is favoured for 11, against National’s six. That is a reverse of the numbers in the last survey in September. (In both, the Greens had two and Te Pāti Māori one.)
The results echo the most recent party polling, which delivered a bounce for Labour under its new leader. If that changing of the guard made it difficult for National to win much attention, the challenge was compounded by Cyclone Gabrielle, the devastation of which meant, as Luxon understood, there was no appetite for party politics.
In that light, the timing is salient. Gabrielle struck from February 12-14; the Ipsos survey (1,002 people, with a 3.5% margin of error) was conducted from February 13-19.
Gabrielle is likely to have played a part in climate change moving up from the sixth to the fourth most important issue, with 27% of respondents picking it in their top three – the highest number on record. That’s up from 16% at the same point last year, and 21% in September. Another issue on the rise is crime/law. It is cited as one of the three most important issues by 33% of people, up from 31% in September; two years ago, however, it was just 16%.
The Greens are judged the best able to deal with climate change by 35% of respondents, ahead of Labour on 20% and National on 13%. That may seem unsurprising, but it’s noteworthy that in June 2021, when Labour swept the board, that included climate change, with 32% saying Labour was best to respond, followed by the Greens on 20% and National on 11%.
There is no sign, however, that inflation and the cost of living are receding from the foreground in election year. On the contrary: the issue is identified by all but two out of three respondents as one of the three biggest issues, almost twice that of the next on the list, housing and crime/law (both 33%).
The overall rating of the government’s performance has plateaued at, well, mediocre, at 5.4 out of 10. That number peaked for the current lot at 7.6% in 2020, before a steady decline to 5.3 in May last year and 5.5 in September.
Most concerning for National, however, is the breakdown on party backing within the inflation/cost of living issue. In the chart below, the dotted line shows the proportion of respondents who selected it as a top issue. The blue and red lines are National and Labour. (Grey is don’t-know and light red is none.) Here, National was judged the most capable of managing the issue by a margin of seven points this time last year; that grew to 10 points in May 2022 and 14 points in September. Now it’s just three points. The change is significant.
It is hardly panic stations, given the caveats noted above. But that tangle of lines is the reason Chris Hipkins keeps banging on about bread and butter, and National will be focused on nothing more than arresting the narrowing of that gap.