Josiah Banbury: Why is National struggling to convince voters?

Josiah Banbury: Why is National struggling to convince voters?

National and its leader Judith Collins don’t fit very well with the times. Josiah Banbury takes a look at the wider context of this year’s general election – especially the way the ideological winds are blowing – and explains why politicians of the right don’t have much of chance of electoral success.

It seems like an eternity ago, but earlier this year it looked as though the upcoming election would be close. National were riding high in the polls and there was a real possibility Labour would be the first one-term Government since the Third Labour Government lost the 1975 election. On 13 February 2020 National were five points clear of Labour in a Colmar Brunton poll. Less than a week before that a Newshub-Reid Research poll showed National holding a slim lead over Labour. Unable to deliver on the rhetoric that propelled them to an unlikely win in 2017, Labour looked vulnerable, despite the popularity of their leader. Then came Covid-19 and everything changed.

After the initial Covid-19 lockdown Labour began to dominate the polls. In May 2020 a Newshub-Reid Research poll showed Labour leading by 26 points. Only a few days later that result was confirmed with Labour holding a 30 point lead in a Colmar Brunton poll. Consequently, Simon Bridges’ position was deemed untenable and he was replaced by Todd Muller on 22 May. Less than two months later, Muller stepped aside, and Judith Collins became leader of the opposition. It would be an understatement to say Muller failed to impress as leader. In contrast, many people assumed Collins would be a serious challenger to Ardern, but so far Labour has maintained a strong lead over National. Since then, polls have fluctuated, but a pattern has emerged showing Labour holding a comfortable lead. This article puts forward the wider context within which the election is taking place to explain why National has struggled to convince voters and why they are unlikely to win the 2020 election.

Why has National been unable to bounce back in the polls?

During a time of crisis politicians and governments experience the ‘rally around the flag effect’, which results in increased support from the public. It is a common phenomenon and therefore it was not a surprise to see Ardern and Labour gain widespread support soon after Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand. But how long will the rallying effect last for? It is not unusual for the spike in popularity to be brief. For example, YouGov found the approval rating for Boris Johnson in the UK increased from 46% in March to 66% in April, before falling to 43% in June. It is difficult to predict how long Ardern’s popularity will hold. However, Ardern has proven to be an effective communicator, she is now trusted throughout the electorate, and she connects with people emotionally. These traits are most likely to be the main reasons why so many voters were drawn towards Ardern. Covid-19 is a frightening prospect. Most people do not know a lot about pandemics, and they are rightfully concerned. Therefore, they are seeking comfort as much as anything. Since the Prime Minister communicates effectively, is considered trustworthy, and exudes calmness, it is very likely the rally around Ardern effect will last well beyond the election.

Additionally, New Zealand is a very outward looking nation. And things don’t look great overseas. When New Zealanders vote, the US will still be struggling to get Covid-19 under control, as will the UK. How the US and UK managed Covid-19 was always going to shape the 2020 New Zealand election. When voters judge the performance of Ardern they are not only comparing her to the leader of the National Party. They are also looking overseas towards countries like the US, UK and Australia as points of comparison. Most New Zealanders have friends or family living in places where Covid-19 is still wreaking havoc, or they see reports in the news on a daily basis.

As a result, their evaluation of Ardern is extremely positive. It is incredibly difficult for National to gain traction when people compare the New Zealand Prime Minister with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Ardern has not suggested injecting disinfectant as a cure, nor did she visit hospitals and shake the hands of Covid-19 patents. Yes, that is a low bar, but that is where the bar has been set.

This leaves National in a rather hopeless situation because it is largely beyond their control. National’s election chances would have been helped if Trump and Johnson had produced a swift and competent response to the virus. Recently, Trump claimed there was a “big surge” in New Zealand and “we don’t want that”. The timing of Trump’s comment could not have been worse for National; it became headline news the same day Collins attempted to grill Labour in the House for mistakes at the border. In addition to the problems in the US and UK, Australia is currently attempting to control a widespread community outbreak. It becomes very difficult for National to convince voters that Ardern is failing when she is clearly performing far better than the leaders from the countries New Zealanders compare themselves to.

Is Judith Collins the kind of leader who can challenge Ardern in this moment?

When Collins became leader of National some believed she was a threat to Ardern and Labour. However, during a moment of crisis a hard-nosed politician who is comfortable engaging in the dark arts of politics is more likely to be a liability than an asset. When a crisis, disaster or pandemic occurs people seek a measured response from those in power. They yearn for security and stability, rather than change. If Ardern continues to pacify peoples’ concerns by connecting with them emotionally her popularity should hold in the short term. Collins does not possess the traits required to instil a sense of security in voters. In the midst of a pandemic, few voters who recently shifted their support to Labour will be drawn back to National by a bomb-thrower with a history of dirty politics. National’s base might be excited by Collins’ confrontational approach, but in the current context middle New Zealand is more likely to view that as a risk.

We have seen the desire for stability and security unfolding in the US in a unique way. Trump, who should have experienced a bounce in the polls thanks to the ‘rally around the flag effect’ has suffered a dip in popularity because he failed to present himself as a leader with compassion and composure. Consequently, Joe Biden, who is remarkably inept and still capable of losing the election, holds a solid lead, mainly thanks to older voters shifting their preference away from the volatile and untrusted Trump. Obviously, Collins is not a Trump, Ardern is not a Biden, and the New Zealand electorate differs markedly from that in the US, but a similar process is likely to play out in New Zealand this election. Older voters especially, who tend to lean towards National, will be more than comfortable voting for Labour because they have come to trust Ardern in a moment of instability. Collins possesses a number of unique leadership qualities, which at a different time would serve her well, however, during a pandemic Collins is a liability.

Why is National not considered to be the party with the economic solutions for this crisis?

The argument put forward by National that they should oversee the economic recovery because they are the competent economic managers has not resonated with the public. While it is true National are usually considered by voters to be better at handling the economy, they are also renowned for being the party of personal responsibility, and they have actively promoted themselves as being tough on beneficiaries. Since New Zealand’s dominant cultural trait is individualism, promoting a punitive approach to unemployed people is effective when the economy is running relatively smoothly.

However, when everyone is aware the global economy could fall off a cliff at any moment, and while there is a temporal shift towards collectivism, a party that pushes rugged individualism becomes unattractive to an increasing number of voters. New Zealanders generally want their Government to be distanced but paternalistic. It is a fine balance. Most of the time people will prefer distance, but during a time of crisis it is not a surprise to see people lean towards paternalism. Right now, most people are aware they could lose their job at any moment, so voters want the Government to intervene and protect them.

Moreover, if we step back and look at which direction the ideological winds are blowing, this election becomes even more difficult for National. Economic liberalism is the weakest it has been in decades. The rise in popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn is evidence that neoliberalism is on the wane, even if they failed to win their respective elections in the US and UK. Their ideas, which are reminiscent of post-WWII social democracy, did not resonate with people during the heady days of economic liberalism throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. We have also seen right-wing parties overseas, such as the Republicans in the US and the Conservatives in the UK, shift from neoliberal globalisation towards a kind of conservative nationalism that aligns with the Paleoconservative tradition.

While this shift is yet to occur in New Zealand, we are starting to see signals it might emerge soon. ACT has experienced a rise in the polls, but this is mostly due to disgruntled National voters looking for an alternative, and the party focusing on culture war issues. ACT are struggling as much as ever to build a base of supporters who are drawn to their libertarian economic beliefs. Ideologically, we are living in different times to that which existed a few decades ago, despite neoliberalism remaining intact in the form of a third-way centrist consensus. New Zealand is not about to experience a crumbling of centrism in the foreseeable future, but the ideological winds are swirling in a way that makes it difficult for National to articulate an economic vision based on their neoliberal, global free-market values. Gradually, more and more people are looking for alternatives to the economic status quo, which means fewer people believe extending the neoliberal project is the path out of this economic crisis.

Does the recent re-emergence of Covid-19 and extended campaign period provide National with a chance of victory?

The answer to that question is probably no. Perhaps Labour’s lead will narrow, but it is unlikely to reduce to the point where the election becomes a close contest. It is just as likely the re-emergence of Covid-19 will result in increased support for Ardern and Labour. When New Zealand went into lockdown in March 2020 voters rallied around their leader and Government in large numbers. There is little to suggest voters will now shift towards Collins and National. Kiwis will probably support Ardern’s swift response, especially in light of what has occurred in comparable countries. Once again, Ardern will be able to present herself to the nation as a leader in control, a leader people can trust, and a leader that provides the calm reassurance people need when chaos is unfolding. An upside for Labour is that once again Covid-19 is the only thing on peoples’ minds. This means that any concerns over Labour’s lack of policy, which is their weakness, fades into the background.

Even if the worst case scenario happens and community transmission spirals out of control, it is unlikely Ardern will lose support in large numbers. Consider the popularity of Scott Morrison in Australia. Widespread community transmission emerged in July, but his popularity has so far held strong through into August. Interestingly, the results of his actions have been a secondary consideration to Australians. All they wanted to see was a leader who looked as though he was doing everything in his power to solve the crisis.

This suggests Ardern and Labour will not drop significantly in the polls even when mistakes occur in the lead up to the election. Of course, this is politics – anything can happen, especially with another four weeks added to the campaign. But if the situation worsens most people will continue to have faith in Ardern, at least for the short term, which is all Labour needs to win this election.


Josiah Banbury has taught social policy and human services at the University of Canterbury. His research interests include disasters, housing and economic inequality.


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.