Prebble's punch

Is Richard Prebble punching above his weight? He’s acting like a big boy when his party is a littl’un. What’s the game?

On Monday, as Labour basked in the glow of the Waikato University survey’s stratospheric figures and other pollsters were unofficially reporting a lift for Labour over the weekend and wondering whether that was a bandwagon off the Waikato figures, Mr Prebble tried a little poll-bandwagoning of his own.

He avoided putting many numbers to his party’s polling but said it showed the right (actually he said “centre-right”) was neck and neck with the left, ACT was in third place, pulling votes from Labour, and National was 8 per cent higher than in September. Also, expectations of a National win now nearly matched a Labour win and New Zealand First support would bleed to the right, not the left.

Early evidence of the fallout from New Zealand First suggests he may be right: that New Zealand First supporters disappointed by scandal are swapping from populist Peters to populist Prebble.

In this respect he is heir to a 1990s tradition: Jim Anderton in 1993 (18 per cent, now not even 10 per cent); Winston Peters in 1996 (13 per cent, now struggling to stay above 5 per cent). There is no compelling reason why grumpies will stay with Mr Prebble after this election if they go his way this time.

To get into the big league ACT has to supplant National as the main party of the right. That is highly unlikely. The Alliance had a better chance in 1994 of supplanting a shattered Labour party than ACT does now of supplanting a vigorous, rejuvenating and redeveloping National party. Even at the 16-17 per cent Mr Prebble is boasting he will get, ACT would still be smaller than the Alliance in 1993.

If National is in opposition next term, ACT will find it hard to hold its support as those wanting Labour out gather round National and National edges as far rightwards on the likes of crime and treaty as it needs to squash ACT (as Helen Clark, moving leftwards, did to the Alliance). Jenny Shipley has already moved during this campaign on crime and the treaty.

If National is in government next term and ACT joins it, National will supply the Prime Minister and ACT will be forced to share — probably disproportionately — in any unpopularity.

This entrapment in the fortunes of the big parties is the awful dilemma of small flank parties. The Greens are on a high at the moment but if Labour wins they and the Alliance will, if they join Labour in government, carry the can for at least some of voters’ disappointment with Labour’s failure to deliver to expectations built up by its heavy criticisms of social services.

But for those in the fevered tents of party generals that is in the distant future. For them the future is now just 10 days long. We are in the election endgame.

Labour’s endgame was supposed to run like this: the polls show the Labour block clearly ahead of the National block, with New Zealand First promising confusion; if you want a clear majority government the only option is Labour plus friend(s). But the polls are unclear.

Labour might still get that opportunity, depending what the DigiPoll and Insight polls show on Friday and Waikato University next Sunday. But starting next Sunday is a bit late. Labour will then be running into a barrage from National linking lower tax with growth and jobs.

An inkling of the potential force of that argument came in the Vardon Rd reports in the Herald on Saturday: Dave Thomas said he was leaning Labour for his kids’ sake but the company he worked for didn’t want higher taxes (he probably meant higher ACC fees). The implication (reflecting National’s campaign message) was that his job was at risk under Labour.

But first National has to see off Don Brash’s expected interest rate raise this morning. Bill English has spent the past two days trying to put the best face on this in advance but the headline will be negative. The best he can hope for from his jawboning is that banks, whose bread is better buttered by National, will delay pushing up mortgage rates until November 29.

National is not in a happy place. Disapproval ratings are still high and economic confidence still soggy. ACT has far too much support for comfort — hence Mr English’s scorn for its economic policy on Sunday. Mr Prebble may be punching above his weight but he does it with panache and plausibility. Spare a thought for classroom discipline if he’s in the cabinet after November 27.