Bryce Edwards: Bittersweet “Pollquake” for the left

Bryce Edwards: Bittersweet “Pollquake” for the left

New Zealand politics has been relatively stable for the last nine years. Public opinion hasn’t moved around much at all, even in the face of all sorts of scandal and chaos amongst the politicians. And when volatility hit other countries, New Zealand appeared to be comfortably unmoved. Everything has now changed. The public is suddenly shifting their support around – and on the left that has meant deserting the Greens and jumping on board Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party.

Volatility rules

Volatility now rules. The latest 1News Colmar Brunton poll exemplifies this – see 1 News Colmar Brunton poll: Greens plummet below five per cent, ‘Jacinda effect’ keeps Labour climbing. This has the Greens going from their highest support three weeks ago, to their lowest support in decades. When was the last time a party lost over two-thirds of its support in a few weeks?

It seems the election campaign really is making a difference this year. Previous recent wisdom was that campaigns don’t have a particularly big impact on elections anymore. In the recent past, even though polling might have bounced around a bit in the lead-up to election day, political parties have ended up getting similar support to what they had at the start of the campaign.

But, internationally– exemplified by the Corbyn and Trump campaigns – election campaigns have lately turned public opinion around considerably. People nowadays are more open to changing their votes. And the sudden closeness of this campaign has made politics so much more interesting.

Last night on RNZ, I said “It is just an election that is so close, I think we’re going to see much more fascination with what’s happening … we’re going to see a higher voter turnout because people like when there’s actually a contest… This is the most dramatic election I think we’ve seen for many decades” – see RNZ’s Poll puts Greens below threshold as Labour surges.

Other commentators have been saying similarly things in recent hours: “the ‘Jacinda Effect’ has redesigned the electoral map”; “Ardern’s elevation to the leadership just 17 days ago has electrified the contest”; and “the implosion of support for the Greens has transformed the election campaign”. In fact the Herald’s Audrey Young puts it best, saying that “new leader Jacinda Ardern has managed to make New Zealand politics as gripping as the dramas in the United States and Britain that captured world attention” – see: Julie Bishop may have given Jacinda Ardern an extra lift.

Mike Hosking emphasises how close things have become: “So, it’s tight, tighter than most thought, which makes every day, every policy, every announcement critical” – see: National appear to be in some level of trouble.

And Toby Manhire draws attention to just how much the latest 1News poll differs from the mid-August poll of 2014: “National now 44%, then 50%; Labour now 37%, then 26%; NZ First now 10%, then 5%; Green now 4%, then 11%; Māori now 2%, then 0.9%; TOP now 2%, then not a twinkle in Gareth Morgan’s eye” – see: Greens are goneburger in new poll which shows English and Ardern level pegging.

Although last night’s poll “is only one poll”, the NBR’s Rob Hosking emphasises the new political territory we are now in, saying “in these days of increased global political volatility, [such polls] can swing violently again… And these are – as we have seen from overseas – volatile times. These polls could swing again, with similar statistical violence, in other directions. There is still a long way to go between now and September 23” – see: Poll shock for Greens, wake up for National (paywalled).

The Greens’ pollquake

Obviously the Green Party bore the brunt of this week’s pollquake. I described their dramatic decline as being due to a “perfect storm” because two factors have been at work – the “Jacinda Effect” and the “Metiria Effect” – which by themselves might not have produced such an extreme slump in the polls: “not only have they had this horrible scandal, it’s happened at a time that Labour is buoyant… People see that Labour is back in the game, that they have a credible leader, and that’s why they’re taking 37 percent of the vote” – see RNZ’s Poll puts Greens below threshhold as Labour surges. See also my interview on TVNZ’s Breakfast: ‘There’s a chance Greens might be wiped out this election’ after sharp poll fall – Bryce Edwards.

So why have Green supporters deserted the party they once supported? Audrey Young says: “They are being punished for many things in the past five weeks but disunity is top of the list, or as leader James Shaw calls it, ‘messiness’.”

And Mike Hosking argues it’s not only Metiria Turei at fault: “What a catastrophic mistake it will be if the Turei debacle sank the party. It is widely accepted now that James Shaw failed the leadership test. He should have cut her loose; by standing by her he looked weak and he and the rest of them are now paying the price.”

Turei herself isn’t quite apologising for her impact on her party. At a public meeting on Monday night in Timaru, she is reported as being “unrepentant”, and saying that although it had been a “sad” few days “she was still confident her decision to discuss her past was the right one” – see Daisy Hudson’s Metiria Turei says admitting benefit fraud was the right thing to do. Turei does, however, say that in hindsight “she would have thought more about the impact on her family before making the announcement.”

As for the Greens’ initial polling plummet, Turei maintained that “It was much less than I expected”, and pointed more to other events as causing the damage: “I absolutely expected to see a drop as a result of the resurgence in Labour”. But she is optimistic that the damage wasn’t permanent: “I’ve been really pleased to see the party continue through the campaign, we’ve got fantastic candidates, great leadership in James Shaw, the party is really rallying.”

James Shaw is also putting an optimistic spin on things, suggesting that the only way is now up: “This is about as bad as it ever gets” – see Vernon Small’s Green Party out of Parliament, Labour surges in new poll. Shaw is ruling out the possibility of help from Labour: “I honestly don’t think we’ll need it.”

Could support for the Greens fall further? It’s possible. First, the Greens have to fight against the “reverse-momentum factor”, in which supporters abandon the party due to the perception they’re no longer a popular or viable option. Second, the psychological effect of the Greens potentially being below the crucial 5 per cent MMP threshold means that some voters will be unwilling to risk supporting a party that might not make it into Parliament. The risk of a “wasted vote” is a significant deterrent for some. Those on the left who want to “change the government’ will now feel safer giving their support to Labour, even if they prefer the Greens.

And although many commentators assume that the Greens have a loyal “core vote”, the fate of the Alliance party needs to be remembered. The Alliance went from 10% in 1996 (down from 18% in 1993 under FPP) to around 1% of the vote in 2002. In both cases – although over a much longer period for the Alliance  – resurgent support for Labour and internal divisions were key factors in the catastrophic losses.

The focus will now be on whether Labour will activity help or hinder the Greens. Toby Manhire looks at the possibility of an electorate deal: “Does it mean that a Greens-Labour deal in Wellington Central is on the cards? In the Espiner Scenario – named for the RNZ host who mooted it – Grant Robertson would stand aside in the seat for Greens co-leader James Shaw. All going to plan, that would mean the Greens would go in to parliament irrespective of party vote, on the coat-tails exemption-to-the-threshold rule. Both Ardern and Shaw told TVNZ tonight that was not going to happen. Can that position sustain another couple of polls showing similar numbers?” – see: Greens are goneburger in new poll which shows English and Ardern level pegging.

In any case, Manhire thinks the Greens will not disappear: “The Greens missing out altogether seems altogether unlikely. But their target now will be considerably more modest, maybe 7%. The challenge will in part be to keep spirits up.”

Clearly the Greens will be desperately trying to figure out how to get themselves out of this mess. The most obvious re-orientation would be to focus again on their core reason for being and stated point of difference – the environment.

This is exactly what John Armstrong suggests in his column yesterday, published prior to the shock poll – see: Greens in election no-man’s land after Metiria Turei shambles. He argues that the party needs to look seriously at “the very vexed question of the party’s positioning on the political spectrum.” This means, not only re-asserting their environmental focus, but also ditching the party’s alignment with Labour: “Expressing a willingness to at least talk to National post-election would put a whole different complexion on the election. And no party is currently in greater need of such a change in the election’s dynamics than Shaw’s crew.”

Here’s Armstrong’s main point: “Labour’s resurgence means there is now only one escape route from the cul de sac in which the Greens are trapped. They need to reposition themselves in the centre of the political spectrum so that if they have the numbers to be a player in post-election talks on government formation, they have the flexibility to engage in serious negotiations with either Labour or National or both major parties.”

Finally, what could happen next? Such a volatile campaign could easily produce further surprises and upsets, and so Simon Wilson outlines 10 more things that could change this election campaign.