NZ's political fishing season begins: Labour casts for the urban middle class, English baits soft Nats off Winston and the Maori Party's out on a lake they should own

By Alex Tarrant

With our 51st Parliament finishing up last week, it’s now political fishing season. The latest triennial event was kicked off by the traditional sounding of a ‘game changing’ poll – this time being Thursday’s 1 News Colmar Brunton.

As things stand – based on this poll alone – the Green Party would not get into Parliament, with a 4.3% reading coming in below the 5% threshold. I’m going to say early on that I do think they will make it. But the result has certainly set off some interesting discussions.

These include: on the potential wasted vote, on Labour’s fishing for Green and soft National middle class votes, on National fishing for soft New Zealand First votes, and the Maori Party fishing for Maori New Zealand First votes. More on these further below.

First, that poll. One Radio NZ pundit on Friday cautioned against reading too much into things – going as far as to say our democracy isn’t robust enough to deal with focussing on individual polls. This poll was simply reporting on the reporting of the week of 12-16 August, she said. I have some sympathy with that.

But it certainly did indicate that the general direction shown by the previous Three Reid Research result was correct. Labour’s leadership change has seen a massive spike in support for the party, with votes coming from the Greens and National (and potentially NZ First).

The 1 News poll was as follows: National 44%, Labour 37%, NZ First 10%, Greens 4.3%, Maori Party 1.7%, TOP 2.1%, ACT 0.4, UF a no show and ‘other’ 0.5%. This gives us 100% (yes, we’ll get onto why this isn’t the case shortly).

Plugging this in to the MMP calculator would give, in a 121-seat Parliament: National 56, Labour 48, NZF 13, Maori Party 2, ACT and UF 1 each.

On this, National would not be able to govern with the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture – the same bunch as before. Labour would be able to govern with New Zealand First. Peters is the Kingmaker – just.

Isn’t MMP fun?

There are a few things about these polls, though. The poll as reported did not take into account the undecided vote of 13%. The headline results only included people who had mentioned one of the above parties as the one they’d vote for. So, let’s take 13% off each party’s headline vote and create a new party.

That 13% represents 17 seats if the wasted vote is 6% (Greens, TOP and ‘other’). If the ‘undecideds did not want to enter coalition, then National (49 seats) would be the only major able to govern (forget about the politics for a minute) with NZ First (11 seats) and the Maori Party (2 seats) or NZF, ACT and UF (1 each) in a 122-seat Parliament (Labour 41 seats).

If we boost the Greens to 5% exactly (6 seats) in this scenario by giving them a portion of the undecided vote, then National (47 seats) would need NZF (11), the Maori Party (2) and both ACT and UF in a 122-seat Parliament. The point here is, a smaller wasted vote (now just TOP and ‘other’ at 2.2%) works against National.

Now, it’s unlikely we’re only going to get a 2.2% wasted vote (even if the Greens make it across 5%). More of that 13% unallocated vote is going to be wasted. Last election 6.25% of the party votes cast did not turn into representation in Parliament. The Conservative Party’s 3.97% was the largest of this block, which also included Internet Mana (1.42%), Legalise Cannabis (0.46%) and Ban1080 (0.21%).

Plug that in again as 6.25% and assume the Greens get 5%. On paper, it is easier for National to form a government than Labour. Bump wasted vote up to 10% by assuming the Greens aren’t getting over the line, and you’ve got National only needing NZ First.

So, there is not as much hope for Labour unless it manages to grab a good chunk of that undecided vote and the Greens get over the line. Meanwhile, if Bill English doesn’t want to go with Peters, then National needs to pick up the larger chunk of the undecideds. Its current partners could help as well.

That was a very round-about way of coming to my main point: This is why we open a special Spring Political Fishing Season every three years. Isn’t MMP fun?

The undecideds will decide whether we see an election result anywhere near the 1 News and Three polls. I would guess that the majority of undecides are now leaning away from the fringes and towards either Labour or National, versus before the Greens’ July AGM when I reckon undecides were more leaning away from the centre towards either the Greens, NZ First or TOP.

Goin’ fishin’

The Greens’ demise has quite clearly been to Labour’s gain – when you look at their individual polling numbers. The fact that Jacinda Ardern isn’t Andrew Little has had a massive effect. The Greens’ urban-liberals have been attracted back to a party that now looks progressive, fresh and more representational of them than Labour did before.

Ardern has caught a couple of big ones. Labour’s freshwater announcement appears to have worked in terms of rallying the middle-class urban vote the party now depends so much on. The urban middle-class faction of the “John Key personality” voting block has also been attracted back across from National.

And more of the middle-class “BA’s are great” vote might also come on the heels of a tertiary education announcement which is expected to bring forward a promise for three years free university education (oh, and polytechs too) which will mainly benefit middle class children.

This, the water policy, personality and potentially tax policy (as well as rallying calls from James Shaw) will serve to keep TOP out of Parliament – the more Labour can get of this potential ‘wasted vote’ all the better for them. Keeping the Greens down somewhere near, but over, 5% means the greater the chance Winston Peters will go with Labour (at the moment the Greens are still required – so the lower their vote, the greater leverage Winston has and the greater the likelihood he’ll feel comfortable in some sort of arrangement with the Greens).

Bill English has cast a couple of lines as well. Last week’s boot camps announcement clearly indicates where National is focussing its efforts: soft Nats who had drifted to Winston Peters or undecideds that were leaning towards Peters from National.

This will be the focus of National’s campaign. While pandering to this voting block might annoy some upper-middle class (Auckland) urban liberals not taken by Ardern, these voters would likely turn to ACT, which would be to National’s gain if this boosts David Seymour’s party vote above the 1.2% needed to trigger a coat-tails scenario.

One other fishing expedition could also be key. Don’t forget about the Maori Party. If they can hang on to Te Ururoa Flavell’s seat and get enough party votes to bring in two or three coat-tails MPs, then this could ensure the current government’s survival, particularly if the wasted vote is high. National might need this if Peter Dunne loses in Ohariu to Labour, although I’m still not sure that’ll happen.

Where would the Maori Party get extra votes from? Labour’s installation of Kelvin Davis as deputy was not only a good move in that he was the right person for the job, but also in that Labour is less likely to lose Maori votes than under Andrew Little. Yes, all Labour’s other current Maori MPs are still off the list, but this isn’t so much of a discussion point any more with a Maori deputy.

If not from Labour, then Maori Party attention needs to turn to the fringes. Specifically, will Winston Peters’ bagging of the Maori seats and one-law-for-all be the trigger for the (quite considerable) NZ First Maori voting block to turn to the Maori Party? Will debate over water ownership trigger undecided Maori to rally foreshore-and-seabed-style around Flavell and Fox?

The message there is easy: A National-NZF govt could mean goodbye Maori seats. Let’s not forget that their eradication was National Party policy until they were forced to turn to the Maori Party for support. Anyone wanting to argue the Maori Party has done nothing for its people over the past nine years needs to explain whether they think those seats would still exist right now if the Maori Party hadn’t been around the table.

So, as fishing season enters full swing, Labour will be lowering its fresh, organic feed to attract as much of the urban middle class as it can. National will be baiting NZ Firsters with meaty, populist politics which will see ACT snap up some of the more upmarket catch. The Maori Party will have the Hei Matau out meaning New Zealand First might find its school of support nibbling away at hooks cast from two sides of the lake.