Big prize: huge management task

Here are some numbers United Future and Labour might usefully take on board.

Some 40 per cent of United Future and ACT voters told the post-election NZ Herald DigiPoll they found it difficult to work out whom to vote for. The average for all those questioned was 24 per cent.

That a quarter of all voters found it difficult to decide their vote casts interesting light on MMP. It is also a worry for National, which shed votes in the campaign, many probably to ACT and United Future. Around 36 per cent of voters for those two parties said they made up their mind on election day or the day before.

How did they decide? More than 60 per cent of United Future voters said opinion polls played a part in their choice — twice the (rather high) 32 per cent average. The United Future vote was a tactical vote.

Some 84 per cent of United Future voters said they were happy with the result — 22 per cent very happy — though only half thought the outcome would produce stable government. Only 30 per cent of ACT voters said they were happy.

Anecdotal evidence may explain the difference. Many of United Future’s converts from National aimed to rescue Labour from the Greens, which they did. National supporters who went to ACT were dismayed at National’s performance, prospects, policy or campaigning.

We should not read too much into the poll figures. They are from only one poll, of only 500, and the smaller parties’ subsamples are small and error-prone. But they accord with anecdotal evidence and intuition.

They represent a big management challenge for Peter Dunne and another one for Helen Clark.

Dunne has to turn a tactical vote into an enduring one. He will need to fashion a genuine parliamentary caucus out of his seven greenhorns, make his presence felt in a way that deserters from National can approve and lock in voters who might just as readily vote tactically — and partly on the polls — for a different outcome next time.

Give him a 50:50 chance of holding enough MPs to be credible in the next Parliament.

Helen Clark’s task is to turn her new government envelope, stretching from the Sue Bradford to Larry Baldock, into an enduring grouping. This is the “Scandinavian” prize dangling before her.

Actually, two Scandinavian countries are now in the hands of the right: Norway and Denmark. But generally over decades strong centre-left parties, supported from left and centre, have held sway against divided oppositions.

“Since 1945, especially in Sweden and Norway, governments of the centre-right have been few and far between and tended to be relatively short-lived,” says Jonathan Boston of Victoria University’s MMP project.

Clark knows Scandinavian politics in depth. She recognised quickly the prize before her. Her choice in government formation talks was clear.

Her immediate task is to centralise the United Futurists, if not in moral and social attitudes, at least operationally. Her advantage is that, while the left in her own party and the union movement is squirming at shacking up with some conservative chaps, the Labour left prizes government above purity.

Labour’s “oppositionists” left long ago for the Alliance. The Labour left and the unions want Labour in government, however glacially their agenda is progressed, because that is the only way it will be achieved.

The Greens understand that, too. But they are less restrained. With the Alliance gone, the Greens are the only anti-establishment party in the House and now have the opportunity to deepen their policy mix and strengthen their links with social activists, peace activists, Maori activists and unions.

That could be problematic for Clark. But it could also be helpful if the Greens save that vote from being wasted on an Alliance with no seats. Also, the Greens are likely to vote for many more government bills than Dunne’s lot.

So Clark must care for her left as well as her centre.

That will require more flexibility than we have seen from her yet. Moreover, her management task is complicated by a much edgier relationship with the media, judging by a strained “debrief” dinner two top ministers called with senior journalists last week.

Give Clark, like Dunne, a 50:50 chance. But also note that this woman is still growing in the job.