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Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon.
Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon.

OPINIONPoliticsJanuary 31, 2023

A Chippy blip, or something more?

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon.
Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon.

Two new polls put Labour under Chris Hipkins suddenly ahead of Chris Luxon’s National. Toby Manhire assesses some strikingly similar numbers. 

Come on now. The news in New Zealand is meant to yawn gently out of bed in January. A sprinkling of set-pieces, scene setting and sloganeering, that’s all. But the year 2023 is not playing along. A shock prime ministerial resignation. A replacement elected – or “endorsed”, really – and sworn in. A devastating natural disaster in our biggest city, schools closed yet again, and a mayor under fire for a woeful early response. 

Fitting, then, that last night January also delivered not one, but two TV polls, from Kantar for 1News and Reid Research for Newshub. The last time both polls emerged simultaneously, they told strikingly divergent stories. This time, they sang very much from the same hymn sheet. 

Chris Hipkins, the man almost nobody expected to be prime minister nine months out from an election, has delivered a sizeable bump to Labour. Sizeable, but certainly not conclusive. The two polls also suggested that, were that election to take place tomorrow (which is impossible but given the January surprises so far, who can be sure) it would be so close that neither of the National-Act or Labour-Green pairings would be able to command a parliamentary majority. It’s even-Stevens. By-the-whiskers-Chrisses. 

1News had Labour up from 33%, which it registered in November polling under leader Jacinda Ardern, to 38% under Hipkins in January, with National down by a point to 37%. Newshub also saw Labour rise to 38%, up from 31.3% in its last poll, again ahead of National, which fell from 40.7% to 36.6%.

Those two polls, side by side:

Newshub’s poll was in the field from January 22, the day after it was confirmed that Hipkins would be cemented as the unopposed nomination to be new Labour Party leader and accordingly prime minister, through to January 27. The 1News poll covered the period from January 25 till Sunday, January 29, meaning it in part captured the government response to the Auckland floods. 

As ever in MMP, we need to look at the way likely governing alliances weigh up. 

The National-Act bloc is still ahead, but the margin has narrowed, from seven points to two. (In the Newshub/Reid poll it shrunk from 8.9% to 1.2%). The likelihood of a close race – a “classic MMP election” as Ardern predicted when she was still planning on contesting it – is supported by the fact that not since November 2021 has one of the blocs amassed more than 50% in Kantar’s poll. Though it is entirely possible to rule without 50% of the overall vote, both of yesterday’s polls bring Te Pāti Māori into the spotlight as potential Chrismaker. 

Christopher Luxon responded to the numbers by saying new leaders get a poll bounce, that he is unworried. Fair enough. But as much as anyone he'll be feeling January whiplash. National strategists began the year well into the task: plotting a path to defeat Jacinda Ardern’s Labour. The last two weeks – still not a fortnight has passed since Ardern resigned – will have brought a mixture of delight and discombobulation. Whether it’s easier or harder to defeat Chris Hipkins’ Labour is too early to say. It’s certainly different. 

A startlingly efficient changing of the guard has seen a leap in the preferred prime minister rating for the new guy. Across a half dozen Kantar polls since this time last year he was named by 0.1%. 0.3%, 0% and (three times in a row) 0.2% as preferred PM. Last night he scored 23%, hardly stratospheric, but a point higher than Luxon. And Hipkins, the boy from the Hutt and the guy from the Covid press conferences, comfortably outperformed Luxon when Newshub asked people if they trusted the two men. 

More telling than that may be another number in the 1News/Kantar poll. Asked for their “economic outlook”, 28% of respondents said they were optimistic, versus 41% pessimistic. That sounds bad, until you consider that the previous poll, in November, had just 18% optimistic and a whopping 61% pessimistic. 

Hipkins’ first few days could hardly have gone better for him and Labour – a victory choreographed by senior figures so successfully that there was no challenger, followed immediately by a disciplined, confident set of early appearances that signalled a refocus and reset. He did well, too, in confronting the first national emergency under his prime ministership, even if it was overshadowed by Mayor Wayne Brown’s calamitous early appearances (which improved substantially yesterday). It’s back to the reset table today, as cabinet meets in Wellington. With a reshuffle, expected as soon as this afternoon, and the promised purge of policies, the project moves from intentions to action, from rebrand to governing. We’ll soon enough know whether this is a Hipkins surge or a Chippy blip.

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