By Nick Howell
Labour is leading the pack coming up to the general election of 17 October. How have they gained such a formidable lead? Is it due to their handling of the COVID-19 crisis or the fumbling of the National Party?
Labour is contesting the upcoming election from an unprecedented position of power; the most recent Colmar Brunton One News Poll put them at 53 percent – dwarfing National’s 32 percent . What led to such a result? Is Labour’s polling proportionate to their performance in dealing with Covid-19? Or, are New Zealanders clinging to familiarity in a time of crisis, akin to the bolstering effect the post-2008 economic recovery had on National’s popularity?
Unquestionably, the Coronavirus and its effects – both medically and economically – is one of the biggest challenges the world has faced in the last 20 years. Over 25 million cases and 800,000 deaths have been confirmed globally. New Zealand’s GDP suffered the largest drop in 29 years, falling 1.6 percent in the March quarter of 2020, as reported by Stats NZ . Such profound effects on health and economic wellbeing have led to a large scale of government intervention. Labour have undoubtedly been proactive: putting the country into lockdown to prevent the virus’ spread, issuing wage subsidies, and allowing tax relief for businesses .
This unprecedented level of government intervention understandably frustrated some people, who wished to return to the old ‘normal’. On the other hand, many others have been grateful for the governmental support and robust response – which has been to the benefit of Labour polling.
The old axiom that Labour is concerned with social issues whilst National is concerned with the economy may partly explain Labour’s surge during this time of public uncertainty. Labour markets themselves heavily in this respect – who can forget their Wellbeing Budget? But it cannot be the only explanation. Indeed Labour is now the preferred party for small and medium-sized businesses . Indicating that the sands are shifting, for the first time business owners favour Labour over National.
Crisis = Political Advantage?
A likely political and psychological phenomenon is aiding the Labour surge. As The Economist notes, “one consolation for incumbent governments is that in national crises – warfare, natural disaster, pestilence – they tend to see their popularity rise.”  It is not just New Zealand feeling this effect as well – other nations are feeling the so-called ‘coronavirus poll bounce.’ Why is this the case?
Times of crisis give the incumbent government the ability to prove themselves to the public and to market themselves with all the press coverage they receive. Members of the opposition console themselves with piecemeal amounts of media attention amid little substantive role in the actual decision-making. The Atlantic aptly describes the role of opposition as appearing petty in times of crisis . Nobody wants to see nit-picking criticisms when there are questions of national importance on the table. To illustrate, former British Politician Michael Ashcroft cynically stated that if the Second World War occurred today, the questions being asked would include “why can’t I have almond milk on my ration card?”
National has arguably been this type of opposition during the Covid-19 crisis – having faced numerous criticisms for perceived pettiness, and seemingly contrary to Labour on many issues for the sake of opposition . This started with the leader of the National Party at the time, Simon Bridges, criticising the extension of Level 4 Lockdown for its potential impact on mental health. He was promptly accused of ‘nit-picking criticisms’ and of being ‘tone-deaf’ . These criticisms carried over to the debate surrounding the border. National initially advocated for keeping the border open, handily changing their opinion to one of border-protectionism once Labour loosened border policies . This antagonistic style of opposition likely played a part in Bridges losing his leadership of the party. Below is an example of this perceived pettiness:
It therefore seems probable that National may have contributed to their own downfall by failing to present themselves and their policy as a plausible alternative to Labour during a time of national crisis. Criticism has an essential role within the democratic process; however, it seems National may have failed in making these criticisms pertinent and palatable.
Parallels – National and the Global Financial Crisis:
The potential advantage offered to incumbent government in times of crisis is not a particularly new phenomenon. Indeed, the 9 years of National government from 2008 to 2017 were punctuated with crises, the most prominent of these being the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Christchurch Earthquakes of 2011. National successfully navigated these crises and subsequently used them to their political advantage, giving them the ability to claim themselves as the right party for the economy and in times of tragedy. The result was manifested clearly in the 2011 general election, where National received 47 percent of the vote, compared to a lowly 27 percent showing by Labour . The cliché of National being better for the economy was largely supported by their handling of the financial crisis – a legacy that still lives on.
The general election of October 17 is quickly approaching. With such a significant lead, Labour is looking to be the clear favourite. To stand a chance, National will likely need to straddle the line between substantive opposition and antagonism. If they wish to retain a sizable voter base the perceived pettiness of their politics must vanish.
One thing is certain – Labour’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis will remain a political tool in years to come, just as National’s handling of economic recovery post-2008 has been. How Labour leverages this tool will remain to be seen.