With a week to go, Alex Tarrant reckons it’s advantage Labour; National’s still in it – why a few thousand voters could be the difference; Also, what would Winston want, and could the 'London vote' be the final straw for changing the govt?

By Alex Tarrant

With under a week to go, it’s looking advantage Labour.

Potential news flow, those eleventh-hour GDP and immigration figures, and a focus less on policy and more on visions and personality have the final week tipping in Jacinda Ardern’s favour. However, a few thousand voters could tip the balance back National’s way on election day.

The test will be whether these final week tailwinds for Labour merely serve to cement it in the low-40s, or ensure it comes out on election night on top, somewhere in the realm of the Colmar poll at 44% of the vote.

None of this is to say it’s doom and gloom for National – not in the slightest. They will be relieved the polls didn’t show their share of the vote spending too much time below 40%. On the RNZ poll of polls, they are still a whisker in front (this was written on Friday afternoon).

But how will they strive to stay there? The ‘attax lines’ will have less cut-through now that Labour’s kicked for touch until 2021. Indeed, Labour’s belated decision might allow people to think, ‘well, let’s give them a chance for three years, and we can always vote the others back in before those tax changes come into effect if we don’t like them’.

I’d put a bet on at least one editorial writer next week saying that, “while it was a U-turn, it showed Labour is prepared to listen to the public rather than go pig-headed into some sort of scheming plan…Ardern’s decision had shades of John Key’s pragmatism. It should be welcomed and shows they can be trusted to listen.”

Potential coalitions & Winston

The recent polls have thrown up a raft of possible coalition options. In no particular order, they are: Labour+Greens, Labour+Greens+Maori, Labour+NZ First, Labour+Greens+NZ First, Labour+NZ First+Maori, National, National+NZ First, National+NZ First+Maori.

At the rate things are going I wouldn’t rule out a National+NZ First+ACT scenario, even if David Seymour views Winston Peters as “Mr Mussolini” with the view reciprocated. And, because we’ve got National on its own, no reason not to throw in Labour on its own in too – if the Greens fall below 5%.

As we near the election, Winston Peters is being careful not to rule anything in or out. With his party trending down in the polls, the probability is increasing that he’ll have to settle for a coalition or some sort of agreement that involves either the Greens, ACT or Maori Party in there as well.

Don’t think for a second that he’ll rule out any of those options – particularly if he’s not the only ‘balance of power holder’ (ie, if the Maori Party is needed on top of NZ First). This is his chance for a legacy. He’s already got the “Right Honourable” title that comes with Deputy PM, and he’s hugged Condoleezza Rice as Foreign Minister.

The talk from both sides is that there are a few “big ideas” in the mix for a new title to be created for whatever he will agree on as a “legacy project” in return for confidence and supply. He will find a way to calm his caucus if there isn’t enough meat offered to them as well.

My expectation is that Labour will try and have him inside the tent with the Greens as a starting point. This will serve to quiet any discontent within the caucus regarding Ardern leaning one way (Greens) against some of their wishes. She might still need to show her mettle in the days after the election by stamping her mark if caucus positions are split – this is more likely than Bill English having to do so, as National has fewer options.

If Peters does hold the balance, I’ve also heard a train of thought that he’ll go with whichever leader is least likely to be rolled during the next term. This follows his run-in with Jenny Shipley after Jim Bolger was set aside. If this is the case, he’s more likely to turn to Labour. I’m not entirely convinced by this on its own.

The biggest legacy project will trump other considerations. Both could easily offer him something ‘regional’ (he loves ferries and trains). It is harder to think though what National could offer him which Labour couldn’t (one-law-for-all perhaps?) Labour could offer him access to greater parts of government than National (housing, monetary policy, tax, education, electricity generators, SOEs).

Seeing as he’s the King of MMP, how about throwing in a workstream to reform the electoral system as a side platter, alongside whatever else is offered?

A few thousand voters could be the difference

Back to the two main parties. For National, it’s looking like they’re increasingly relying on the actions of a few thousand voters. Bill English’s chances could hinge on those people who are tossing up whether to vote for the Greens or not.

Take Friday’s RNZ poll of polls. I’ve evened up the two major parties at 42% each, with the Greens on 5.5%, NZ First on 6.8%, the Maori Party on 1.3% and winning two electorate seats, and ACT on 0.6% winning one electorate seat. TOP basically represents the remainder.

In a 120-seat Parliament, Labour (51) could not form a government with either just the Greens (7) or NZF (8). The Maori Party (2) could only get a Lab-NZF govt over the line. Meanwhile, National would also need NZF and the Maori Party.

Push the Greens below the threshold to 4.9% and Labour and National (54 each, now) could form a government with NZF (9). So, English’s chances are greatly improved if the Greens miss out.

With the Greens currently on 5.5%, it could be a matter of 14,000 votes which give English that chance or not of forming a government with NZ First (assuming an 80% turn-out from 3.5 million eligible voters).

Who are those people most likely to be? Younger voters. If you think 14,000 is too big a number, it is estimated that 150,000 18-24-year-olds are not enrolled, and that 83,000 25-29-year-olds are in the same boat. By this measure, the election is on a knife-edge.

The Greens are famous for getting an extra seat from overseas ballots – could it be that the “London vote” keeps the party above the threshold and is the final catalyst that falls into place for changing the government?

Undecideds also key

We also need to take into account the undecided vote – these polls report their results ‘ex-undecided’ – only taking into account respondents who say which party they’ll vote for. This might be anywhere between 4% and 14% of the electorate, going by the most recent respective undecided rates for the Newshub/Reid and 1 News/Colmar polls.

It could be that the final TVNZ debate on Wednesday night (we’ll be there covering it, and with all the reaction from Ardern and English afterwards) actually makes a difference this election – particularly if the undecideds are on that high side.

If National and its current support partners, ACT and the Maori Party, manage to grasp this bloc to a greater extent than Labour, and if the Greens go below 5%, then National on 45% could govern if ACT and Maori are each able to bring in a list MP on top of their seats (requiring just over 1.2% for ACT and 2.1% for the Maori Party).

Given my feeling that Labour is more likely to take the final week, this scenario is declining in probability. But, it should still be kept on ice in case English spends the final week pandering to New Zealand First voters to such an extent that he gains a bunch of them and some undecideds while a smaller amount of National’s base is pushed out to ACT. Can the Maori Party stir up enough votes by having a go at National over Landcorp, and Labour over water? Hard to see now, but still possible.

Alternatively, could Labour, and to a lesser extent, the Greens, pick up the momentum again after the Tax Working Group U-turn? If this serves to blunt Steven Joyce’s campaign attacks then that’s my central scenario, and just remember that London vote.

But hey, a week is a long time in politics, and even longer during an election campaign.


If you’ve got a few minutes free this week, then do look through our policy pages – even if you think you’ve made up your mind – and scroll through the party lists to see who you might be voting in with your party vote.