When the polls don't tell it like it seems

What’s going on? The government should be losing ground in the polls but over the past month it has gained.

The health sector is in uproar and the government’s response is to gag (it is a gag, whatever weasel words Annette King envelopes it in) the hospital chief executives who can’t make ends meet because costs, in-part government-imposed, exceed government-supplied revenue.

The universities are in uproar and the vice-chancellors in a standoff with the government over revenue allocations that don’t meet costs. If the vice-chancellors convince their councils, the result will be either more money by sleight of hand or higher student fees, deeply embarrassing to the government.

There is to be a partial smoking ban in bars, which will most affect Labour’s core vote.

The economy is slowing and “economic transformation”, though promising much, is still barely more than a pregnant phrase and not obviously, day-by-day, the government’s central policy preoccupation.

So the government should be losing popular support.

Instead, in the four polls taken late May/early June the government averaged 50 per cent. Labour alone averaged 46 per cent, well above Tony Blair’s 41 per cent in the British election on June 7.

Labour’s margin over National in those four polls was 13 per cent. The left as a whole (Labour/Alliance/Greens) led the right (National/ACT/United Future) by 19 per cent, the highest average gap since the government’s surreal honeymoon early last year.

Jenny Shipley consoles herself that National is polling better than its 31 per cent 1999 election score (actually 33 per cent). But the right as a whole is now below the election score and Labour’s partners have around 6 per cent on average more than National’s — a potentially lethal handicap for National.

Clark’s own rating is strong across all polls. Shipley’s is soft. And on the polls’ various confidence measures, optimism has a 20 per cent lead over pessimism.

Clark privately bothers about high ratings because falls attract negative headlines. The obverse of that worry is that she has the sort of cushion most Prime Ministers would die for mid-term.

Two years ago I thought that Labour’s fixation with undoing some of the 1990s policy changes, the absence of a convincing programme for the 2000s and the top brass’s political correctness would put it out of step with voters and, because Labour’s 39 per cent vote gave it no cushion for losses, possibly confine it to one term.

But I reckoned without Clark’s adaptability. She has set limits to any leftward or PC drift (originally, the smoking ban was to be total) and has reversed quickly out of scrapes, even managing to do it in opposing directions in killing “closing the gaps” but keeping “gaps” alive with Maori.

At least for the moment Clark commands the board, as Blair does. And the longer she is there (in this term at least) the harder she will be to shift.

I reckoned also without the National party.

National thought it could watch Labour go left and then reoccupy the centre with minimal resistance. There was some basis for this in the modern profile Bill English, Nick Smith, Roger Sowry and Tony Ryall had developed. And, indeed, by October the left-right gap had narrowed to 2 per cent.

But, English’s intelligent speeches notwithstanding, National has got itself parked on the right. It has recently even had second thoughts about its early bipartisanship on the knowledge economy — which, after all, it started.

National’s problem now is to differentiate itself attractively without becoming even more estranged from the centre. This poses a hefty challenge for the policies it is to release in the spring after consultations between the caucus and the party organisation.

The glimmer of hope in the polls for National is that, despite the recent fillip for the left, they appear to be on the turn — though, if so, ever so gently. In that event, as the gap narrows, the new policies might look successful, at least to National MPs.

If not, expect frayed nerves by November. Jenny Shipley is unchallenged for now and has the virtue of gutsiness by the tonne, an invaluable commodity in perplexing and difficult times. But if loss-fearing MPs get into a bad-poll panic, gutsiness may not be enough.