Back in February, in the last poll undertaken just before New Zealand was plunged into Level 4 lockdown, National was sitting on 46%. Labour was on 41%.
Up until this point, National had been comfortably polling in the mid-40s with the exception of a brief period following the Christchurch mosque attacks that saw Jacinda Ardern’s strong leadership during a crisis flourish.
Some have argued that the Jami-Lee Ross saga was the start of the National Party’s demise. And maybe in terms of its internal affect, it was. But aside from that period during October 2018 when the scandal was the biggest news going, the public’s support of the party was not affected; National dipped slightly in the polls in early-November but had recovered by the end of the month.
As late as early March of this year, National would have been feeling positive about the election. A win was by no means guaranteed, but it was looking to be a two-horse race with a photo finish.
Then the pandemic reached New Zealand. As it often does in times of crisis, the public united behind the Prime Minister’s leadership. This resulted in desperate, poll-driven panic within National. Simon Bridges was rolled as a result.
We will never know what could have been if the party hadn’t jumped the gun and acted impulsively so soon into the Covid crisis. We do know, however, that the party didn’t just fail to recover from the first round of negative polling. Instead, it went on to decimate itself.
So, what does National’s disastrous election result tell us? And where to from here?
Well, this was, as the Prime Minister declared, “a Covid election” (which was somewhat ironic given previous pleas to the opposition not to politicise the virus). It is probably more appropriate to call this a crisis election, however. The public supported Ardern and the Government’s actions and effective leadership and, for many, it did not make sense to switch to a party in disarray. They also didn’t appreciate the attempts to negatively frame the Government’s response, particularly with what was going on in the rest of the world.
The instability of the party following the Muller-Kaye leadership coup was also detrimental. National supporters have always valued and appreciated discipline, stability and the belief that the party has a strong, united caucus. The scandals, leaking, and general unrest within the party damaged that perception for many typical National voters.
By comparison, Labour looked like a safe vote.
What about policies? National had plenty. They just didn’t get the same airtime as the drama surrounding the party. Mistakes in the alternative budget didn’t help.
The reality, though, is that policies mean very little in a crisis election. And Labour knew it. They focused on the strength of their own team while releasing very little in terms of substantive policy. This was in complete contrast to National.
Taking all of this into account, it’s probably fair to say that the election result was not a rejection of the National Party’s policy platform or its values per se. Pre-covid polling had a significant percentage of the population preferring National to the then Labour-led coalition. Instead, there was a rejection of the party’s volatility during a time when the country needed stability.
That was something the Labour Party could provide.
So, National should not, as a result of the election, rush to radically change its policy platform. Nor should it take on a more liberal agenda to compete with Labour. Those who switched their support this year are more likely to be centrists than leftwingers – and these are the people that National needs to win back.
How does it do that? The first step is to become the strong team National supporters expect them to be and that voters have every right to demand. MPs who are bitter, angry or disappointed need to suck it up and move on. Dwelling on the past few months will do nothing to win the election in 2023. The only way forward is through positivity.
And, above all, if there are conflicts within the caucus, these need to be resolved internally. Not through leaking to the media. Those who seek to cause unrest within the party need to remember the people who put them there.
Monique Poirier has a Masters degree in Political Studies, and is a small business owner and former Parliamentary staffer. She is the Campaigns Manager for the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance.