Thursday 6 January 2011

Are The Polls Right?

Going Down? If the polls were a little black box, Labourites would be forever tapping it with their middle finger, giving it a none-too-gentle shake, and muttering: "There's something wrong with this bloody machine - because that can't be right!"

CAN THE GOVERNMENT really be so far ahead of Labour in the polls? Is it credible that voter support for the National Party is consistently calculated at more than 50 percent?

Labour supporters certainly don’t think so. If the polls were a little black box, Labourites would forever be tapping at it with their middle finger, or giving it a none-too-gentle shake. Re-reading the dial they’d mutter angrily: "There’s something wrong with this bloody machine – because that can’t be right", and throw it forcefully against the nearest wall.

But, this sort of denial only makes things worse. If there’s one thing in this world upon which it is still safe to rely – it’s mathematics. If three or four independent polling agencies, each one conducting its survey at different times and using its own idiosyncratic selection and weighting formulae have, for two years straight, produced results within a very few percentage points their rivals – then those results should be heeded.

Rather than insisting there’s something wrong with the polling agencies’ little black boxes, Labour should be devoting its energies to understanding the data. Phil Goff needs to understand why John Key’s government is so popular. Only then can the Labour Party begin making it unpopular.

A major obstacle to achieving such understanding is the historical record. Labour’s strategists look back over more than a century of election results and find only a handful of occasions where a single political party received more than 50 percent of the popular vote.

These were the elections of 1938, 1946, 1949 and 1951. All of those contests were classic First-Past-the-Post, two-party, elections in which 95 percent or more of the popular vote was shared between Labour and National. Since the election of 1954, when the Social Credit Political League debuted with an impressive 11.4 percent share of the votes cast, neither National nor Labour has ever won more than half of the electorate’s support.

It is highly improbable, Labour’s strategists insist, that the National Party, operating under a system of proportional representation and with six other parties holding seats in the House of Representatives, could take more than 50 percent of the Party Vote.

Improbable – but not impossible.

Deductive reasoning has its place, but it is not always true that simply because something has never happened in the past (or, at least, for a very long time) it cannot, therefore, happen in the future. Just ask Barack Obama.

If a set of conditions have come into existence between 2006 and 2011 – conditions that were not present when past general elections were conducted – then it is entirely reasonable to argue that this year’s general election will produce an outcome none of us have ever seen before.

What could those conditions be?

One of them might be an unwillingness, on the electorate’s part, to go on believing that governments can act outside the parameters of global capitalist norms without making a bad situation even worse. In a nation as small and economically vulnerable as New Zealand, such scepticism is likely to be well-founded. And, in circumstances where that nation is required to borrow $260 million per week, just to pay its bills, then scepticism is well on the way to becoming fact.

New Zealanders look abroad and witness the dire economic crises afflicting Greece and Ireland: they see the violent political consequences of the austerity measures forced upon those bankrupt countries’ governments; and they are hugely relieved that their Prime Minister made his millions negotiating the rapids of global finance.

In the absence of a Labour leader, and a Labour Party manifesto, sufficiently persuasive to negate John Key’s experiential advantages, why would New Zealanders vote for anybody else?

It will require a campaign of historic and heroic dynamism to jolt New Zealanders out of their fatalistic certitude that nothing can be done to protect their country from the ravages of a devastating global recession. And, since a period of economic austerity is now inevitable, who’s better placed to manage the whole painful process than our own, highly successful, former currency trader from Merrill Lynch?

Labour cannot count on the news media delivering, uncritically, any policy prescription fundamentally at odds with these dispiriting conclusions. Which leaves the Opposition Leader Goff with just two options.

If he’s unwilling to challenge the conventions of contemporary politics (in which the mainstream news media plays a crucial role) he’ll have to run what The Daily Show’s host, John Stewart, calls a "We suck the least" style of election campaign.

Or, if Mr Goff wishes to offer the voters something more than "A Kinder, Gentler Austerity Programme", he’s going to have to display a talent for radical-populist political mobilisation hitherto undetected in either himself or his caucus.

Accordingly, the chances of National’s stratospheric poll results proving anything other than prophetic seem rather slim.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 January 2011.


whowuddathort said...

I really enjoyed this post Chris. A good honest reflection of the situation. I generally enjoy reading your posts because, despite being of a different political leaning than I am, you are generally good at giving some long hard thought to situations and giving honest opinion on issues rather than just defending those you support. Keep it up.

peterquixote said...

Yes, thats right Chris it's a light weight laissez faire Government, with no creed.

Here comes the opposition in the name of the one Farrar can not name, and his name is Winston.
Its the economy stupid, and its the Maori ownership arrogance at the foreshore.
End the weakling Government.
New Zealand has no future other than as a state of Australia.

McFlock said...

My concern isn't so much with the polls themselves (although there are issues),but how non-response rates compare with the 75-80% turnout at election time. And the validity of saying "they could govern alone" 10 months out from an election.

The other thing is that Key has been blessed by disaster - I mean the trail of cabinet ministers briefing the media if their portfolio even narrowly intersected with the Pike River explosion made me want to puke, but I'm sure it looked good to nu zuld. Even Tolley managed to tour a quake-damaged school and look slightly less incompetent than usual (any price for a photo-op, wandering around classrooms that were too dangerous to teach in).

My point is twofold.

Firstly, if there aren't so many crises in 2011 as there were in 2010, then the natural incompetence of key's cabinet has a chance to shine through and the smile and wave routine will pall. The election is still too far away to predict - maybe English and the PEDA issue will blow up, or we become the first country in the OECD to go into double-dip recession.

Secondly, National needs at least 45% to have a chance of governing. They have no friends. MP could go either way, ACT as zip%. Labour might be able to agree a mature C&S relationship with MP (say 5%) and the Greens (say 5-8%), so that's government on 40%.

Basically, I think Labour are soft-tories anyway and don't believe that they've rediscovered their leftist roots, but if National get a second term we're stuffed.

By the way, what was Labour polling at the start of 2002?

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Pretty much on the button, methinks, Mr Trotter.

Anonymous said...

They're just men and women on both sides of the House, and neither can save us. Nat/Lab/whatever, NZ is indeed stuffed, and this goes back to the neo-Liberal policies of the éighties and 'nineties. Personally, I think that Key and Goff are interchangable, one just has a wider smile than the other. Men will never save us, and the disasters make not a lot of difference. National is Socialistic and Labour seem to admire Tories. What a joke. Complacency is actually very dangerous. And we are complacent.

Anonymous said...

Problem is McFlock, National's term so far couldn't have been reasonably predicted. I know working class people who are already doing it hard and only expecting times to get harder still, who have more faith in Key now, than when they voted for him for the first time two years ago. I would never have predicted that their belief in the National brand would grow with every new piece of bad news.

And yet Labour holds completely steady in it's nothingness, waiting for the government to be so appalling and things to get so bad for most NZanders that it will win by default, the prize as the lesser of two evils.

And they appear to have asolutely no idea of the laughing stock they have become, and that the media, despite its obvious love affair with Key, is also reflecting a large segment of popular opinion in its attitude to their performance.

Olwyn said...

Like Mcflock, I would like to know more about the non-response rates, since it would give us some indication of the numbers who have lost confidence in the political process. Joe Bageant's book "Deer Hunting with Jesus" talks about how the natural constituency of the left has turned to the right because of feeling let down and betrayed by the democrats, and this sort of thing may play a part in Key's popularity here - if you are poor you cannot be let down by a Tory, and may even feel relieved that he is not as bad as he could have been. Others however will have given up on politics altogether, and it would be good to know how many. But John Key would not be on quite such a sweet ride if we did not have Australia next door to absorb a large percentage of our work force.

What Labour needs to get its head around is that people have become immune to being offered sympathy and suggestion in lieu of concrete commitment, rather as ducks become immune to the decoy whistle.

Victor said...

I suspect that the lessons of the 1930s have been largely forgotten and that the New Zealand public, just like the public in most Western countries, can't get its head around the notion that a nation's finances aren't the same thing as a household's.

Faced with huge private international debt and a substantial (and inevitable)increase in
public debt, the average prudent and intelligent householder finds Treasury belt-tightening to be an obvious and responsible policy option.

It will take a massive shift in awareness to convince the mass of voters that government finances are different to those of an individual household and that a degree of 'deficit spending', however counter-intuitive, may be relevant to our circumstances.

Unless Labour is able and willing to articulate and explain a different approach to the economy, it will always be easy to paint it as the less realistic and responsible of the major parties. This may not exclude it from office in times of prosperity. However, those are not the times through which we're now living.