How ACT could help Labour to win in 2011 and how not

Here’s how Labour could in theory win next year. It’s mostly to do with ACT and in particular Rodney Hide.

First, the spectre of 2002: Labour looked a shoo-in, so some who were National-leaning but not heavily committed and wanted to put a brake on Helen Clark went to New Zealand First and United Future; National’s vote fell.

If National looks a shoo-in for 2011, some voters might desert Labour for parties that could potentially have some influence or just vote Green, not feeling constrained that they might cost Labour a win. That, coupled with maybe some fallout from National, is New Zealand First’s best chance of adding the 1 percentage point to its 2008 vote needed to make it back into Parliament.

But what if National doesn’t look a shoo-in, if it is falling back a bit from its 2008 score of 45 per cent, as usually (though not for Labour in 2002) happens to a government over time?

Labour’s vote share would then logically rebuild a bit, in part because 2008 deserters from Labour to National and non-voting return: 38 per cent is do-able. Add, say, 7 per cent from the Greens and Labour could be competitive — even more so if some voters in a Maori electorate thought the Maori party had got too chummy with National and flipped a seat back to Labour.

Add New Zealand First to the mix. Labour might well be its preferred government, both on economic policy grounds and on Winston Peters’ difficult history with National. Phil Goff already has three years experience dealing with Peters in government.

Then factor in the sudden loss of voter support for the poll-driven Kevin Rudd government in Australia and ask about the degree to which the Key government is poll-driven.

Now add up the troubles ACT has got itself into: Rodney Hide’s holiday on a ministerial trip; the mismanaged dumping of Heather Roy; and, last week, David Garrett’s veiled past. That list points, first, toward a fall in votes and loss of seats and, second, because all three troubles reflect mistakes of judgment by Hide, to questions about his capacity to hold Epsom.

A smaller vote would make ACT less useful to National. Hide’s misjudgments are a potential embarrassment to clean-living, middle-of-the-road John Key (a bit like Peters was to Clark in 2008) and also lend a patina of plausibility to Labour charges that ACT is too influential on National.

National voters in Epsom might be less prepared to hold their noses and vote for Hide in 2011, as they did in 2005 and 2008. And National bosses might be less inclined to ease Hide’s path with nods-and-winks to voters. Hide’s climb, on National voters’ belief he could be useful, from 7059 in 2002 to 15,251 in 2005 and 21,102 in 2008, could reverse. The spectre is Peters’ plunge in Tauranga from 14,290 in 2005 to 9039 in 2008 and a losing margin of 11,742.

Add that all up and a Labour-led government is no longer laughable.

If so, then why not a Labour win?

First, Hide’s majority in 2008 was a huge 12,882. Only a mass desertion back to National and/or across to Labour would eliminate that majority — certainly possible but not (yet) certain.

Second, even a smaller ACT might be useful to Key in a second term to avoid dependence wholly on the Maori party for a majority or, if Peters claws back into Parliament, dependent on a mutually suspicious combination of the Maori party and Peters. Remember that Key rejected Peters in advance of the 2008 election but remember also that he recently refused to restate that.

That potential usefulness, combined with the fact that ACT would be much tamed by its lower numbers and misjudgments, might encourage National — ever the tactical party, above all — yet again at least tacitly to leave Epsom to Hide.

Let’s say National holds at 43 per cent, ACT gets three seats and the Maori party four seats — and maybe Peter Dunne squeezes back one last time (though his majority over Labour’s Charles Chauvel in a three-way contest with National’s Katrina Shanks, now a list MP, was only 1006 in 2008). That would keep National in power.

Add to this the fact that, while Key’s government has upset some people and will likely upset some more over the next year, it hasn’t (so far) upset voters in large numbers. Moreover, Key is the great placater, nearly all things to nearly all people nearly all the time.

And, while Labour is in much better shape than most parties in the first term after nine years in power, it has yet to rekindle widespread voter enthusiasm.

But imagine Key herding an ACT-Maori-maybe-Peters bunch of cats to get a majority for bills. Moreover, imagine ACT and the Maori party keeping onside true believers — and, for the Maori party, voters whose social policy needs are Labour-ish — while keeping Key in office amidst crunchy politics. A second Key term might not be the cloud-nine show the first term has been.

You can see why National would dearly like to get back to a voting system that delivers single-party governments. And why Labour has hope.