The worst thing a Government can do to the Opposition is to ignore it, and consign it to irrelevancy, but not so this week.
From the moment the latest Colmar Brunton political poll was published on 1 News on Monday, Labour was on the case of Simon Bridges, the new National Party leader.
Bridges polled only 10 per cent as preferred Prime Minister to the incumbent, Jacinda Ardern on 37 per cent.
But Labour has been behaving as though he was a clear and present danger.
Not only that, they had further ammo targeting Bridges, who took over from English almost eight weeks ago: Bridges’ debut rating of 10 per cent compared poorly to John Key’s first rating as National Party leader at 27 per cent in 2006, and Jacinda Ardern’s first rating as Labour leader in at 26 per cent in 2017.
Labour’s home-grown leadership losers were not spared from the campaign to reinforce the apparently hopeless case of Simon Bridges – he had done even worse on debut than David Cunliffe, David Shearer and Andrew Little – historic data helpfully produced by Labour showed.
So the 9th floor sent spin doctors around the gallery to try and convince the journalists that a poll showing them slipping 5% was bad news for Simon Bridges.
If Bridges is doing so badly as preferred Prime Minister why is Labour treating him as a threat in such a concerted effort?
I’m damn sure John Key was never so insecure that he sent his staff around the gallery to try and spin the poll results as bad for the opposition leader.
Despite the Labour coalition and its parties holding a majority in the poll, there was much for National to be pleased about and a lot for Labour to be concerned about – namely the party vote.
National’s party vote support has remained virtually unmoved since the election despite the loss of a highly respected leader in Bill English, a five-way leadership contest, and in the first term of a very popular new Prime Minister.
Until the series of mishaps and controversies in the Government over the past five weeks, National had been expecting to take a hit in the polls, perhaps to the high 30s.
But brand National is stronger than they thought and the Jacinda effect has not been as strong – her own rating having fallen four points.
In fact her rating of 37% after six months in the job is the same as Key after eight years!
Historic comparisons are not necessarily valid either when it comes to comparing leader popularity to party popularity. The variables include personality, the number of prominent leaders, the time in the electoral cycle and how long the leader has been in place.
Former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger, example, won the 1993 election even though he was less popular than Labour’s Mike Moore.
Former Labour leader Helen Clark was on 2 per cent popularity in May 1995, well after gaining the Labour leadership in November 1993, although she gained popularity before becoming Prime Minister in 1999, but only to the low 20s.
Clark eventually made it to the 50s as preferred Prime Minister in early 2002, when the Alliance was falling apart, as did her successor as Prime Minister, John Key.
Doing well in Preferred PM helps, but it is not a pre-requisite for winning. The party vote is what matters.
But Labour must be worried that if National’s support has held up without Bridges having done so, then he really does present a real threat if he succeeds in establishing himself more positively.
If they were not worried, they wouldn’t have tried to spin it as bad for him.