At some point, Christopher Luxon needs to stop staring down Act and start winning votes from Labour.
The most interesting tidbit that emerged from the National election-year conference over the weekend wasn’t meant to be shared in public. The party’s target for the October 14 election, it was inadvertently revealed, is 45%.
Forty-five percent! Campaign chair Chris Bishop subsequently told Newstalk ZB it was an “aspirational goal”. He said: “we’re going hard, we’ve got 45% of the vote before, back in 2008, 2011, 2014. National’s done it before, and we can do it again.”
As far as geeing up the troops and aiming for the stars is concerned, that’s fine. As a serious ambition, it sits somewhere between puzzling and reckless. Steadily polling around the 35% mark across the last six months, to hit that mark National would need – please wait while I check this on my calculator – to lift their support by around 10 percentage points.
Bishop is right about National surpassing 45% in the three elections that John Key contested as leader – he could have added that under Bill English in 2017 the party was only a whisker off, on 44.5%. On that basis, National's polling today is abysmal. Less so, however, if you apply a more MMP friendly lens. Taken together, the National plus Act support across the last 15 years is remarkably stable. Omit the aberration of 2020, and the blue-yellow combo has returned election results between 45% and 48.6%. The average of the latest polls would give the potential coalition pair on 46.7%.
So, unless that recent history were to be tipped on its head, National's hunt for 45% would need to come substantially at the expense of Act. Which goes some way to explaining the National mindset of the last few months.
(The election of 2005 casts its own shadow, with new opposition leader Don Brash’s Orewa 2004 speech prompting a surge in National support and a collapse in Act’s, ultimately proving narrowly insufficient to change the government.)
National has been intent, if not fixated, on that Act vote. A yellow and pink mist has descended. It may not be the full-bore “demand the debate” bullhorning around He Puapua that Judith Collins oversaw in 2020, but the energy of the anti-co-governance argument, reinforced by the last week’s denunciation of race measures in the health equity algorithms, is unmistakable. There has been a renewed energy, on three strikes and, at the weekend’s conference, on sentencing, that shows a determination not to cede law and order space to Act.
Most resounding of all, however, was the recent abandonment of two cross-party accords. First, on housing density. Second, on the Waka Eke Noa road map to bring agriculture into the Emissions Trading System.
The size of Act’s support does, no doubt, present a conundrum for National. The calculus of MMP might on the face of it suggest the party should let Act chew into the vote on the right while it focuses on taking chunks out of the Labour belly. That is hardly a message that will motivate those without an electorate they can bank on winning, however – whose number includes some senior National list MPs. And the party's selection process means the diversity it professes to value so highly largely hinges on a vote big enough to bring more than a trickle of list members on top of the electorate contingent.
More elementally, the rural vote, especially, is more than just a “base” for National; it is tribal, baked into the DNA. To wave that constituency away in Act’s favour carries risks that go well beyond the immediate electoral focus.
The great risk for National, however, is that playing too much scrag on right sends a certain sort of swing voter arcing back to Bread and Butter Hipkins. A hazard that may have been on the mind of David Seymour – who has not been shy about having a go at National, and has himself publicly set a goal of a 20% return for Act – when he appeared to propose something like a detente over the weekend. "It's very important for both ACT and National to remember who the real enemy is,” he told RNZ. “It's not each other." To put it another way: why so, you know, inward looking?
Whether the blue-on-yellow salvos are more plotted strategy or tactical panic is hard to say – the truth is probably somewhere in between. As Bishop himself noted, there are now fewer than 100 days till voting opens. The thinking is likely to scrap Act today, triangulate tomorrow; as National pivots towards the centre, expect a few more policies that look more like the childcare tax rebate pledged at Luxon’s state of the nation speech.
The anoraks among us are rightly mocked for hyperventilating over polls, but, honestly, the next round will be fascinating to behold. Since Hipkins took over as Labour leader and prime minister, the numbers have been stubborn. Incredibly close. But given the expiry of any new leader honeymoon, a cost of living crisis that now comes stamped with the word recession, and a no-distraction government hamstrung by the distractions of errant ministers, National and Act will by rights expect to be opening up a gap on the incumbents.
For the moment, National's 45% target looks self-defeating, hubristic even, relying on a grizzly tug of war with a would-be bedfellow, which risks alienating the very people they need to award them the bigger prize.