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Labour is on its last legs
A stench of scandal surrounds the Sixth Labour Government. It could easily prove fatal.
If you follow politics every day, it is extremely easy to over-rate the significance of individual events.
A new policy or scandal will break and you will start putting it into your mental polling model, estimating how many voters may be gained or lost for each party. Often this is very motivated by your own partisan priors: The public will finally understand how bad/great this party is once they see this. Other times you just read too much into an event because of recency bias, or because you withhold a belief that the actions of elected governments can quickly change the economic or social weather.
But in reality it is rarely a single event which makes or breaks a Government1.
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Not enough people follow politics closely enough for anything but the biggest individual events to really change their minds. Indeed, the people who follow politics the closest are often the least likely to change their minds, because they follow politics as committed partisans. (Similarly, people who watch a lot of Rugby are likely to be fairly invested in a single team.)
Instead, impressions are created over time, as voters link these individual events together into attitudes towards parties, which are also informed by their family’s voting history and other factors. This attitude is likely to be informed by both these events and their general feeling about their economic and cultural situation, and who is responsible for it. In other words: You don’t just see one news story and go “oh I’m voting for X now” - you ascertain a vibe over time.
This is a nice thing to remember for a party that hits a rough news cycle or two. Judith Collins’ various scandals did not bring down John Key, and her attempt to bring down Jacinda Ardern with the Iain Lees-Galloway affair didn’t work either.
But if you stick enough scandals and issues together over a short period a vibe can emerge that can be hard to shake: A stench of failure, of a party that just can’t do anything right but can do a lot of things wrong.
Labour’s recent string of bad headlines is starting to give it this stench. To recap:
The highly-rated Minister of Justice was arrested and charged with careless driving and resisting arrest after crashing her car while over the blood alcohol limit. This was weeks after the minister went on leave after accusations of bullying were made against her.
The highly-rated Minister of Transport resigned after failing to sell shares in companies he was responsible for regulating, despite repeated warnings.
The Prime Minister revealed the Government had seriously looked into a wealth tax but cancelled it. This managed to piss off both people who want a wealth tax and hate the idea.
Someone appears to have leaked the Government’s plan to cut GST on food to the Opposition, giving them the chance to frame it in the public eye.
The Minister of Education was hauled before the Privileges Committee after recklessly misleading the House.
The Minister of Health had to correct the record in the House after her office requested that Te Whatu Ora delay publishing health data.
The Government seem to have been bullied out of supporting light rail after the Opposition came out firmly against it.
It’s hard to see any one of these as individually fatal to Labour, but taken as a whole they give off a feeling of desperation and disorganisation. This was also the case with National at the last election - I talked to a lot of voters about why they had gone off National, and they never referenced individual events like the Denise Lee email or Todd Muller resigning, just a general sense of chaos.
The Opposition make the most of this mood and use it to elevate things that are not really scandals at all into feeling like scandals. As a recent example: It is not particularly scandalous that the CTU representative on a cyclone recovery panel happens to also engage in highly-political speech. He is on that panel representing the CTU, who have a clear and well-defined political view. But National could still make a scandal out of it. And because the Government have plenty of pretty serious screwups of late, the media are likely to take defences of this kind of behaviour with more salt than usual.
Remember, voters aren’t parsing every news article clearly and reminding themselves that a National MP and ACT MP were recently referred to the privileges committee too. They are doing vibe checks.
And many of them are doing those vibe checks in a very rough economic environment. Decent wage rises cannot keep up with grocery prices going up 13.2% and interest costs spiking a whopping 28.8% in a single year. (Remember swing voters are more likely to own their own homes with a mortgage.) While unemployment remains low people typically don’t thank the Government for the fact they still have a job, but certainly might for the fact their grocery shop has gone up so much. And pointing to the international situation works well in the debating chamber but not on a voter who is starting to distrust your general competence.
This string of scandals does not necessarily spell doom for Labour.
The tightness of the polls suggest the general left retains quite a lot of support, although the latest Roy Morgan is particularly rough. Christopher Luxon’s personal support in the preferred prime ministerial polls remains behind the Prime Minister and he continues to make cack-handed decisions and silly mistakes. National is not running a particularly inspiring campaign as of yet, there are clearly some internal tensions over housing policy, and at some point the party will need to release a costed spending plan which squares tax cuts with various spending pledges on public services.
Hipkins has been in politics for basically his entire adult life, giving him the kind of senses that could make the debates particularly interesting. In an election where a few points either way could have massive repercussions, a bit of wasted vote on the right and a stronger-than-expected campaign could see him retain power.
But the paths to that future are few and far between.
Recommended reading and watching:
Marc Daalder on the Climate Change Commission regaining some power as the Government u-turns on the ETS.
Oppenheimer is really good. Go see it on a big screen.
Charlie Mitchell’s latest entry on his conspiracy beat.
Individual events can sometimes do a lot: Don Brash’s Orewa Speech was a single event that really did change NZ politics. Liz Truss’ mini-budget probably doomed the Tories at the next election.