|The Dancing Queen: The lesson delivered was as old as electoral politics itself: Dance with the person you came with. Or, more prosaically: before looking after anybody else, a wise political leader looks after the people who brought her victory.|
LABOUR’S 2005 WIN was, in the Duke of Wellington’s words, “a damn near run thing”, and Helen Clark knew it. For most of Election Night the blue line on TVNZ’s Party Vote graph had been ever-so-slightly above of the red. Broad grins spread across the faces of National’s strategists: Don Brash was going to do it! But then, unbelievably, at the last minute, the red line tilted upwards and crossed the blue. The “big South Auckland booths” had come in – and saved Clark’s government.
It would be heartening to record that Labour never forgot the help it received from the Pasifika and Maori voters of South Auckland. Certainly, Clark left her caucus in no doubt, when it met in the aftermath of their narrow victory, that the loyalty of the brown working-class would have to be rewarded. Bread and butter policies – not liberal crusades – must be the order of the day.
By 2008, however, Labour came across as a party more interested in helping Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking legislation across the line, than in building enough state houses to accommodate South Auckland’s poorest families. National’s new leader, John Key, cleverly underscored this perception by visiting the economically-stressed residents of McGeehan Close in Clark’s own electorate. His message was clear: “I haven’t forgotten the brown working-class.”
The lesson delivered was as old as electoral politics itself: Dance with the person you came with. Or, more prosaically: before looking after anybody else, a wise political leader looks after the people who brought her victory.
If Clark didn’t pass that lesson on to Jacinda Ardern, then she should have. And, if she did, how could Jacinda have forgotten it? Because, nearly a year into her second term, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Jacinda is in danger of forgetting who, by delivering her Government its unprecedented parliamentary majority, brought her to the dance.
Conservative political commentator, Matthew Hooton, has put the number of habitual National Party supporters who crossed over to Labour in the 2020 general election at approximately 400,000. It was to this enormous number of voters that Jacinda was speaking on election-night when she promised to govern “for all New Zealanders”. Like Clark in the aftermath of 2005, the present Prime Minister, at least initially, seemed to understand that the hearts and minds of these temperamentally conservative voters were precious. Having won them, she could not afford to lose them.
It did not require a rocket scientist to explain how those 400,000 hearts and minds had been captured. Just one hyphenated word will do the trick: Covid-Nineteen. So long as Labour continues to keep New Zealanders safe from the Coronavirus, those former National Party voters who lifted Labour from 37 percent in 2017, to 50.1 percent in 2020, will not be dancing with anyone else.
If someone hasn’t affixed a post-it note saying: “It’s the pandemic, stupid!” to the PM’s computer-screen, then, quick, do it now!
Because there’s something happening out there in the electorate. It’s probably too much to call it disaffection, but one wouldn’t be drawing too long a bow to call it unease. With the Delta variant of Covid-19 raging across the planet, the Australian bubble on “pause”, and the percentage of vaccinated Kiwis alarmingly small; this government is just one significant community outbreak away from an electorally catastrophic loss of confidence.
Because it’s not as if it’s doing superlatively well on all the other battle-fronts of the political war.
Homelessness and housing affordability are no closer to being brought under control. Only last week the Child Poverty Action Group released a report blaming the Government’s “inadequate” Covid-19 social support measures for tipping a further 18,000 children into poverty.
In the midst of a “Climate Emergency” we are importing more coal than ever, and burning it to keep the lights on.
It is also apparent that, very slowly, the volume of discontent over everything from the “Ute Tax”, to He Puapua, to “Hate Speech” legislation, to contracting the Mongrel Mob to fix the problems created by … the Mongrel Mob … is rising.
While New Zealanders can lift their eyes to the rest of the world and see only danger and derangement, Jacinda’s 400,000 Tories will waltz with her in breathless gratitude. But, just let that danger and derangement cross the border, and see how fast everybody’s dance partners change.
POSTSCRIPT: This essay was penned prior to the release of the latest Roy Morgan and Newshub-Reid Research polls. The sub-40 percent showing of Labour in the former, and the nearly 20 percent drop in support for the Government in the latter, merely confirm the analysis that Labour is in danger of forgetting who its friends are. - C.T.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 August 2021.