When National party delegates gather mid-month in their pre-election conference few will doubt that John Key will be Prime Minister after November 26. Many will strain not to consign Labour to a 20-something vote and dream out loud of one-party government.
There will be ritual admonitions from president Peter Goodfellow and Key not to take victory for granted and ritual rank-and-file promises not to. But highly positive polls, focus groups and buzz on the ground will have set a buoyant tone.
That was Labour’s mood in 2002 heading towards an election in which National was to get 21 per cent of the party vote, arousing Labour fantasies of Swedish-type long-term centre-left dominance.
But what happened between the conference and the election? From mid-May to early July Labour polled an average of 52 per cent, 23 per cent ahead of National’s 29 per cent. Helen Clark’s ratings were stratospheric. In the election on 27 July Labour got 42 per cent.
Labour’s plunge came after the Greens joined conspiracy theorist Nicky Hager to throw rocks at Labour over genetic modification, thus compounding impressions of left-of-centre disunity, the Alliance having split earlier. And large numbers of National-leaning voters concluded Labour was set to be in power and to constrain Clark piled into New Zealand First, which went from five to 13 seats, and United Future, which went from one to eight seats.
Through the first half of this year National’s lead over Labour averaged 21 per cent (53 per cent to 32 per cent). Key’s ratings were stratospheric.
New Zealand First and United Future are now shells, so Labour-leaners have no centre to escape to. ACT on National’s right is throwing rocks — on Key’s economic management, which many in business think lacks vision, and on the foreshore and seabed, which many in the provinces think is a sellout to Maori.
So National could easily drop to its 2008 45 per cent vote share or lower. Even at 47 or 48 per cent it would then need at least one partner to govern. But ACT under Don Brash is talking tough, much less ready to compromise than Rodney Hide, and the Maori party has split and needs distance from National to fight off Hone Harawira and Labour.
That poses management challenges post-election, examined elsewhere in this issue. But first National has to manage its pre-election pitch.
So far four main pitches have been on show: belittle Labour as out-of-date, disunited and with an impactless leader; lay out a range of intended policies, some legislated for and some for after the election, which will proceed only if National is re-elected, thus appearing reassuringly democratic; kick contentious issues such as the constitutional review and more competition for ACC past the election; and accentuate the positive and avoid the negative.
The positive is Key, hugely likeable and liked. His ratings are at a higher altitude of stratosphere than Clark’s. So far he has made enemies only of unionists and teachers.
Avoiding the negative has become a feature of Key’s cabinet: ministers don’t go on radio and television programmes where they might be forced on to the back foot. That way they are seen only on the front foot.
Key mistakenly went on BBC’s Hard Talk in May, where he was wrongfooted on waterway pollution and questioned on his lack of experience. He is much better on soft talkshows talking up his cycleway and folksy photo-shoots at Bollywood, car races and the like.
It’s safety first. In 2008 Key erased Brash’s jarring 2005 notes and insulated National from “third rail” issues (hence no change in the pension qualifying age, despite serious fiscal implications). But with both ACT and the Maori party wanting or needing much more than they got in the 2008 deals, there is no assurance timidity will work as well in 2011.