There are two elections going on, now we are into the official three-month runup. One is a National election. The other is a Labour election.
The National election is about whether the tailwind generated by John Key and Bill English’s in-command economic management holds through to November 26. (Any input from the rugby world cup is likely to be transitory, provided National holds its nerve if the All Blacks bomb.)
National needs its ministers to avoid errors and not to appear arrogant or incompetent. Murray McCully’s application of his Helengrad-style portfolio administration to aid to desperate Africans — requiring “due diligence” of aid agencies while children starved to death — could have been just such a case, if he was a minister in a core portfolio.
In short, National needs to avoid being noticed — for something going wrong.
National needs ministers to do nothing that might distract voters from Key the unifier, pacifier and model of reassurance in disasters. That means, for example, postponing the looming stand-up fight with teachers until after the election. It guided the cabinet’s tiptoe legislative response on liquor, reaffirmed last week.
National’s election aim is a single-party majority. But a repeat of its 45 per cent in 2008 would do because National has its three support parties locked in (though ACT and the Maori party are in strife). Key is pointing to 2014 with his public confirmation last week of his well-flagged intention to do new deals with all three, regardless of the result.
So the National election is actually about the National side: not just National’s own vote but the total of its vote and those of its hangers-on.
National does not need to fear that it might bleed votes to those hangers-on.
Not so Labour. Labour needs to get noticed — for something going right.
For Labour the election is about whether its party vote drops from its 2008 34 per cent score and, if so, by how much. The best all but a few hope for is 36 per cent. Some fear a sub-30 per cent vote.
A sub-30 per cent score would halt some parliamentary careers. Among those at risk are Stuart Nash (list rank 27), the last MP on the bus in 2008, newcomer Deborah Mahuta-Coyle (26), veteran Rick Barker (25), Carmel Sepuloni (24) and rising star Kelvin Davis (23). MP Steve Chadwick (34) looks in serious trouble.
Assuming parties that don’t win seats total 4 per cent (the “wasted” vote), Nash would squeeze in on a nationwide Labour party vote of 33 per cent if all 14 MPs or candidates ranked behind him or not on the list who hold or have good prospects in electorate seats win those seats. The “good” news for Nash is that of the 14 there is doubt MPs Damien O’Connor (West Coast-Tasman), Iain Lees-Galloway (Palmerston North) and Chris Hipkins (Rimutaka) and Te Tai Tonga candidate Rino Tirikatene will win. If all four failed, Nash could survive on a 30 per cent nationwide Labour vote.
The second, and more important, reason for fear of a sub-30 result — even a low-30s result — is that the lower the platform the taller the leap into government in 2014.
Fewer MPs means less presence across the country through the term and a smaller talent pool from which to develop convincing policy and a convincing team look. That was National’s disability after 2002, which it overcame, to the point of a near miss in 2005, thanks primarily to Don Brash’s exploitation of foreshore-seabed concerns.
These two fears have destabilised the Labour caucus since March, most recently demonstrated by a frontbencher’s leak about Phil Goff’s leadership. That spells disunity. Disunity turns voters off.
The positive in Goff’s leadership is that Labour has done some policy rethinking since 2008. That will be his legacy: that he encouraged that rethinking in the first term after defeat despite having been a prominent minister through the whole preceding nine years of government. There is a fair distance still to go but the capital gains tax and the child-centred social policy to be detailed at the start of the campaign proper are decisive shifts from 2000s thinking.
Where Goff has reversed into the past — as in economic nationalist policies such as on foreign investment — that has been to address the most pressing election need, to get Labour-leaning voters to vote who stayed home in 2008.
Labour also has to worry that some left-leaning Labour voters will give up on Labour and vote Green — or, in smaller numbers, Mana. This is more of a worry than that they might cross to National or to New Zealand First.
Sum that up: the Labour side is fractured. It is not the mirror image of the bloc-like National side.
For this election. In 2014 it might be a different story. But that is then and Goff is now.
* Re last week’s column: another way Peter Dunne winning Ohariu might not add a seat to National’s side would be if National would have got the last list quota seat if Katrina Shanks had won; also, Catherine Judd is now Catherine Isaac.