Matthew Hooton explains why John Key should resist the temptation for an early election.
Basically to keep piling the pain on on Labour.
John Key must be sorely tempted to call a snap election before Christmas.
Labour is now in its most parlous state in its 100-year history. In the past two elections, it suffered its worst two results since its formative years in the 1920s. It is now polling much worse than it did in 2010 and 2013, the years before those 27% and 25% debacles under Phil Goff and David Cunliffe.
The latest leader, Andrew Little, was not wanted by Labour MPs or party members, instead being imposed by the unions. He is now significantly more unpopular with New Zealand voters than Jeremy Corbyn with the British and, as National’s campaign chairman Steven Joyce picked so astutely, has an issue with anger.
In our ninth consecutive INCITE poll on approval ratings (use the code “firstmonth” to get your first issue for just $1), Andrew Little has slipped to his lowest ever rating and has never had a positive result.
Organisationally, Labour is broke, advising the Electoral Commission it received no donations above $15,000 last year. It has had no communications chief since May, after the departure of former NZ Woman’s Weekly editor Sarah Stuart. Its chief of staff, Matt McCarten, has been let go to set up an election headquarters in Auckland after a power struggle with finance spokesman Grant Robertson.
They are broker than broke. Word has it that Labour approached Goff’s Auckland Mayoralty campaign for some money to fight the by-election he ahs caused. They were told to sling their hooks and bugger off.
Looking ahead, Labour faces a tough by-election before Christmas in Phil Goff’s Mt Roskill electorate, which it lost to National in 1990, and in which the Labour-Green axis edged out the Key machine by just 1090 votes in 2014. If, as speculated, Nanaia Mahuta elects to leave Parliament to save the Kingitanga movement from the clutches of the Maori Party, perhaps as queen, Labour will face another by-election before Christmas.
Three other by-elections are possible in the near future: in Mt Albert if the unhappy David Shearer takes up the senior appointment that has been rumoured, in East Coast Bays if the Auditor-General throws the book at Murray McCully over the Saudi sheep affair and in Pakuranga if Maurice Williamson leaves early for his new job in Los Angeles. There is also a chance Stuart Nash may feel the need to test his mandate in Napier if he defects to NZ First with Shane Jones early next year.
Quite a lot of kites flying there from Hooton.
Given the hopelessness of his main opponent, combined with my colleague Rob Hosking’s points on the opposite page about emerging economic disquiet and the opportunity to avoid a wasted 2017, any prime minister would start thinking about trying their luck. Here’s why Mr Key shouldn’t.
Labour’s woes are structural, dating to its 2013 conference. There, the party took the disastrous decision, over the objections of then-leader Mr Shearer, to revise its constitution to transfer power from the MPs who face ordinary voters every weekend to its narrow activist base and faceless union bosses.
Consequently, like Labour in the UK, its leadership is no longer elected nor held accountable by MPs in touch with everyday issues but by activists and unionists more exercised by ideology. Not only has this imposed two failed leaders on the party against the judgement of its MPs, it has permanently orientated Labour away from the median voter. Instead, its focus is on activists and union bosses who genuinely believe – and demand – that Labour should concentrate on issues like free undergraduate degrees and ever-more hysterical denunciations of an alleged “neoliberal” government agenda that National activists can only dream might be true.
Thus, education spokesman Chris Hipkins screeching last week that Hekia Parata’s online learning initiative is “a Trojan horse for privatisation and an end to free public education” and housing spokesman Phil Twyford’s nutty demand the government declare a state of emergency over homelessness, something done since World War II only during the 1951 waterfront insurrection and after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
Normal people know such hyperbole is nonsense but not those running today’s Labour. Despite Labour’s disastrous polling, there is great calm among Labour’s Wellington elite that their leftward strategy is working. With the Greens, Winston Peters and perhaps Hone Harawira, they believe all that is left to form a government is to drop by Government House the Monday after the election.
The left-wing assume Winston Peters will go with Labour, but Andrew Little is yet toe ven bother to spend a single minute to talking to Winston. That and the fact any government will by necessity need the Greens makes such a prospect problematic.
Still, instead of making his own trip to Government House this side of Christmas, Mr Key is best to let Labour’s myopia and its unattractive leader continue to work their magic on the polls, perhaps all the way to the last possible election date of November 18, 2017.
In the meantime, if the by-elections proceed, National has nothing to lose. It should put up high-quality candidates, fight hard and bleed Labour’s remaining funds. It should wait for Mr Jones’ move to NZ First and hope the other Labourites Mr Little has publicly denounced as “right-wingers” choose the same path. It should sit back and enjoy Mr Peters’ planned assault on Labour’s vote. It can place a reasonable bet that, over the next year, Labour will suffer a poll result below 20%, utterly discrediting Mr Little as a plausible prime minister and triggering another leadership crisis.
Remaining funds? They’ve got nothing. What’s the bet Labour will use their parliamentary funded Auckland HQ to illegally campaign from?
Mr Key’s background in the financial markets typecast him as a risk-taker. In fact, Mr Key is a patient man. He waited calmly through 2006 for Don Brash to self-destruct. He has no reputation for rushing decisions as prime minister. Those who are successful in foreign exchange tend to be those who try to avoid risk not chase it. To win his fourth term, all he needs to do is wait, and prolong Labour’s agony.
When your opponent has tits for hands it is best to keep kicking the high ball and not playing for touch. Labour is worse than that, they have tits for hands and the leader is spastic.