Posts Tagged ‘Bill English’

So, the first post-resignation Roy Morgan poll came out today. (this is of course the only regular poll in New Zealand at the moment, and it’s not even run by a New Zealand firm…)

Their analysis is somewhat on-point, although I’d be very cautious about attributing the good performance from Labour to the by-election or the resignation, rather those seem reasonable explanations for National’s slump. Even though this is a dramatic change from the last poll that would usually make it suspect of being a rogue1, it follows dramatic political events and moves in the expected direction, so I believe Roy Morgan deserve the benefit of the doubt on this one that their poll is probably on-trend.

Roy Morgan doesn’t show the results in terms of seats in Parliament, you may be interested as to what the poll indicates if it’s bang on. (NZF holding the balance of power, with National and Act having a couple extra MPs compared to Labour and the Greens) But that’s a little superficial, as polls don’t really work that way.

What a poll does is give you, 19 of every 20 tries, a range within which we expect each party to perform. As such, I need to introduce you to a rather odd type of graph to show what the RM is really telling us. This graph is a “doughnut hole,” or essentially a way to compare two pie graphs that show different scenarios or results from different time periods, but with the same categories.

On the inside, we have the leftmost Parliament we can expect. On the outside, we have the rightmost Parliament2 that this Roy Morgan poll indicates we could have got if an early election were called.

rm-poll-2016-12-11-margin-of-error

If a general election were held back on the 11th, Parliament should lie somewhere between the results shown in those two rings. That is, we could possibly get either a Labour-Green coalition that can flex between the independent Māori Parties and NZ first for support, or a National-Act coalition that can flex between the Māori Party and NZ First for support, or we could end up with a result where Winston is kingmaker if the result is somewhere between those two scenarios. As the first two scenarios are literally the most extreme ones, we should expect that the likeliest thing this poll indicates is that the blocs are pretty evenly balanced at the moment, (even though Labour and the Greens are polling lower, they may be in a position to have more friends on their side, too) but that New Zealand First will decide who governs unless New Zealanders tip in one direction or another.

If this RM is a valid starting point for the new trend with Bill English as Prime Minister, then the race has essentially started in a dead heat. It’s possible that future polling will show a difference, (I’m waiting for a poll other than Colmar Brunton and Roy Morgan to show up to give us some better data)

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I’m sure we’re going to see some very excited pollsters looking to be the first to compare Bill English and Andrew Little. (It’s probably going to be Colmar Brunton in first, as they’re the only ones who have been regularly running polls, but I expect the leadership change will prompt the bit players to show up suddenly)

In advance of that, (because saying it afterwards doesn’t have the same impact) and as someone who is frequently on record as saying that polling is relatively accurate1, I would like to remind people that Preferred PM almost literally means nothing. Almost the only important part of NZ polls is the party vote question, which actually has some reasonable predictive power for the general election.

Preferred PM also doesn’t do a particularly good job of predicting who will be in Government, (most PMs lose the Treasury benches while still being more popular than the other person, because a PM is usually more popular than their party as a whole) rather it’s more an indicator of whether a leadership coup is likely for either the Government or the opposition. The only time it generally means anything is if the Leader of the Opposition actually overtakes the PM during the election campaign and stays consistently ahead, in which case, we would expect a change of government because that’s a Big Deal.

It’s also a metric that behaves a little differently for left-wing and right-wing leaders. The Left tends to not be very keen on uniting. (which, fortunately, is actually an advantage under MMP, so long as all your parties are over-threshold or winning an electorate) The Right loves it, so long as they view their leaders as successful, so even if you restricted answers to actual leaders of political parties, (which pollsters do not, it’s an open question, hence why Helen Clark kept showing up even after she was long gone) you would still likely get a bunch of people saying they want Winston Peters or Metiria Turei or even Hone Harawera to be PM, wheras even Bill English’s previous preferred PM polling leading up to his disastrous loss was still higher than Labour’s has been in opposition.

What will be interesting in the upcoming preferred PM results is how many people simply answer John Key because they don’t follow politics. I expect John Key will fall off the preferred PM polls faster than Helen Clark did, but he will probably show up at a significant level for at least the next two.

So, even if Little outperforms English in the next Preferred PM poll, remember:

  • That’s only important if English is actually enough of a drag on the Party Vote to bring Labour into fighting distance of forming a Government.
  • A lot of people won’t be able to name Bill English unprompted just yet, even if they think he’s not doing badly.
  • There won’t really have been time for more than an initial impression, and it’s actually more important how the trend shows up over time. (ie. whether Little and the Opposition in general start gaining ground over time)

And likewise, if English outperforms Little, that doesn’t even necessarily mean he’s on his way for a win, just that he hasn’t immediately lost all of National’s former support. There’s still a possibility that his support will trend downwards if people want to give him a chance but don’t like what they see as time goes on.

This is also why Bill English rather smartly has ruled out commenting on the timing of the next election until next year, as he will want to see not only how National is polling immediately after the transition, but he’ll want to see whether the government’s poll numbers, both in internals and public polling, are moving up or down. If it’s down, expect an early election, if it’s up in early polling, expect to wait.

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So, with Bill English and Paula Bennett now anointed by the National caucus as our new leaders, the pre-campaign is now off to its start. In the drivers’ seat, we have the man who lead National to its worst-ever loss, and beside him probably the second-most despised woman in National’s caucus, which is more of an achievement than it sounds because Judith Collins.

On the other side of the aisle, Andrew Little can’t help but being pleased by the news of who he’s up against. (And I imagine Annette King and/or Metiria Turei are keenly eying Paula Bennet’s seat for 2017…) With Labour taking back the Wellington Mayoralty from a Green-aligned independent, (basically by default, as no Green was running, and Wellington is basically the most left-wing liberal place in the country right now) and it winning the latest by-election in what was essentially a straight contest between National and Labour, Little probably feels resurgent right now. And that’s a dangerous feeling.

There is an opinion piece on the Herald that is just close enough to being right on this that it’s worth linking. Heather correctly points out that while English is a record-breaking loser, (performing even worse than Labour has during its constant leadership struggles) he lost to an ascendant Helen Clark coming off her first term. Little might have the chops to be Prime Minister, but he’s no second-term Clark just yet. (and hopefully, he won’t try to be- while Clark was a successful Prime Minister, she set a precedent as PM that has infected the Labour Party with careerists who are unwilling to step aside and accept a renewal. Little needs to be his own type of leader if he’s to succeed) This is still an election Little can lose, even though English makes even Little’s off-days look vibrant and interesting by comparison.

Heather is wrong to say that Labour can’t snag some of the fleeing National voters who will, inevitably, leave the party fold after Key’s resignation. In fact, I suspect Labour will likely get a 1% bump even without trying from the news, as there were many Key supporters who had come from Labour’s tribe and supported Labour values. At least some of those people will look at their options and conclude that now is the time to re-enter the fold as Labour supporters. It could even be more than a 1% bump if Little can come up with an appealing positive vision for Labour heading into 2020. But Heather is absolutely right to imply that much of the loss from National is likely to either head towards NZ First or simply into the non-voter pile, at least in the next couple of polls.

Speaking of polling, all the 2016 trends before now are essentially out the window. (And we’ll have no way of knowing if the recent surge for National after a slow trend towards Labour and the Greens for much of 2016 was temporary or semi-permanent, as we’re now all expecting a noticable falloff in the Government’s polling this month anyway) We are looking at a different government now, no matter how much National wishes to maintain continuity. Heather is wrong to keep bashing Labour over the head with recent polling. We should be waiting and seeing where they poll after Key’s resignation in terms of looking at horse race results, and those numbers aren’t going to be out until we’re well into the holiday season, so there’s really no room for numbers-based reporting until then.

Nick Legett’s defection, seen by mainstream pundits as somehow a reflection on Labour, really says a lot more about what a centrist sell-out Nick Legett is, and why Wellington so soundly rejected him. He belongs in the National Party, and always did as far as I’m concerned. Good riddance to bad rubbish, the Left doesn’t need pretenders taking up space in its ranks, and National needs more moderate liberals to adjust to the new political consensus John Key has forged, where National can no longer win by selling themselves as a purely right-wing party. John Key’s political legacy, arguably, is ceding the war to the Left in order to win the battle: a concession that conservative right-wing governments in an MMP era is asking too much of a liberal, centrist electorate.

Heather’s also wrong to take issue with Little’s comments about “not knowing what the centre is.” He’s actually being reasonably savvy here- Centre voters love to be talked about in terms of being politically unlabelled, defying the conventional wisdom, and being just ordinary people. In its full context, Little was actually pandering to the centre while simultaneously saying he’s not trying to and managing to sound honest at the same time. By the standards of new-millennium kiwi political rhetoric, (hint: those are pretty low thanks to our former Prime Minister, and his predecessor wasn’t exactly one for rhetoric even though she was an excellent politician) this was practically masterful.

Little should also know that the advice to go hard for the centre is bad advice. Labour performs its worst when it’s self-conscious about where it is positioning itself. If it wants to be the nexus of a left-wing government in 2017, Little will need to lead Labour towards its own electoral identity, one with a populist appeal to working and struggling New Zealanders, that can plausibly say it will do better for ordinary kiwis than National. It should be picking policies that resonate with Labour’s identity, not because they think they will sell well to the centre. If Cunliffe showed anything positive about New Zealand politics, it’s that people are willing to be persuaded to policies they disagree with if they’re told how they’ll benefit the public, and that the electorate does have respect for politicians who will tell them things like they are.

Little doesn’t necessarily need the politics of the Centre to win, although he’d be wise to keep a big tent. He needs a politics of honesty and integrity. There are missing and demotivated voters out there who have been waiting to hear a left-wing message from Labour too, and if Little can get them without scaring away the centre as well, then his confidence may not be misplaced.

So John Key announced today he intends to resign as Prime Minister in a week’s time, heralding the end of a political era. (or perhaps a political error, take your pick) Coverage was initially not particularly clear on whether he’s to resign from Parliament at the same time, but it looks like he’s staying until the election at least, so no by-election for Helensville1.

There are several implications of this. For those who are not political nerds, all the new Prime Minister requires to be Prime Minister is the confidence of the House. That is, a majority of Parliament has to be willing to vote for the replacement. Essentially that means it will be an internal National choice that will then be endorsed by its coalition partners. We don’t get a “by-election” or anything of the kind, and Bill English doesn’t become Prime Minister automatically because he’s the deputy. Those are the sorts of things that happen in Presidential systems, we’re a Parliamentary democracy.

The most obvious fallout is that it’s absolutely going to cost National in polling going forward, and probably even in the Party Vote in 2017. A lot of the party stability was driven by the perception that Key was unassailable as a leader, while his resignation speech has talked up his caucus colleagues, all of them has significant problems as potential Prime Ministers. Let’s go through them:

The Throwback: Bill English

English, a former Leader of the Opposition, has tried to make a run at PM before, back in the Clark era. In National Party history, he had the second-worst election campaign ever, bested only by Don Brash’s later implosion. While he’s not unpopular within the National Party, it’s likely his appeal to soft National supporters is minimal, and wouldn’t be able to hold the “Key coalition” together. There’s also a good argument that English makes more sense as Finance Minister, although if John Key is staying in Parliament post-election, they could potentially swap roles. While he hasn’t succeeded in the past, he’s also in the interesting position of probably being the most popular option with the general electorate- initial (non-scientific) polls have Bill English as a favourite to replace Key, although this could be driven by the perception that he’s also the most likely option.

Key has said that if English puts his hat in the ring, he will have Key’s vote, making him a natural choice for establishment supporters, however there’s a real risk that English would simply be a caretaker Prime Minister who doesn’t look appealing compared to Little.

The Compromise: Paula Bennett

One of the most senior MPs, Bennett has a lot of the same advantages as a potential leader that John Key does- she’s from a more modest background, she’s popular within the party, and she has support with various factions within National. In many ways she’s a middle-of-the-road choice: not too liberal, not too conservative. Not too popular with the general electorate, but popular enough with core supporters. Bennett arguably represents the best bet at continuing National’s current political strategy of populist neoliberalism, where they pair a right-wing core economic agenda with poll-driven social policy.

The Conservative: Judith Collins

Collins is a bit of an interesting case here. Previously booted from her ministerial position for conflicts of interest, Collins has long been eying the leadership position, and is a favourite of the faction most opposed to Key’s leadership style: Conservative voters. Like a lot of the potential options, Collins isn’t particularly popular outside of core National voters, unlike the others, however, she’s actually viewed very negatively in the public, possibly due to her aggressive conservatism, possibly due to her perceived corruption. Either way, Collins is something of a Trump option: an aggressive conservative populist who the opposition views as an easy road to victory, but could surprise us.

The Strategist: Steven Joyce

Joyce, also a conservative in the same faction as Collins, has largely avoided controversy in his career, but also inspires deep hatred among liberal New Zealand. He is most likely remembered as “Dildo Baggins,” for self-explanatory reasons. If you’ve been living in a hole, please go and YouTube it, the rest of us will wait.

Joyce has many of the upsides of Collins, but without her aggressive style or the stink of scandal. While he might be a more palatable option to the liberal wing of the party, he’s arguably a less effective conservative, too.

Others: Brownlee, Adams, etc…

I’m about 90% sure one of the four listed above is going to be our next Prime Minister, but there are others inside cabinet who arguably could put forward something of a case for selection. The National Party is usually pretty serious about seniority, so I expect the only other MP with a shot at the top job is Gerry Brownlee, who is honestly an objectively worse pick than any of the four listed above, and doesn’t have the social intelligence to be Prime Minister.

My money at this stage is on Bennett, as she seems the least objectionable option that is most likely to be able to duplicate Key’s strategy, and to hold their caucus together.

Whoever National pick, they’re in for a tough ride. They have eight months of actual Prime Ministering before an election campaign. They will get the benefit of Key’s experience given he’s staying on as an MP, but that’s a very short time to make any differentiations you need, get a grip on the polls and make sure you’re not losing political ground in the transition, and to ensure you have an effective political strategy that works without Key. (although if they’re lucky and smart in their pick, their current strategy will be portable to whoever their new Leader is)

Ultimately, the winner from this news seems to be Andrew Little, who has gone from anticipating a general election against a Prime Minister that was more popular than him and needed to be torn down, to a battle against a neophyte leader who might face similar issues to Goff or the pack of Davids that preceded Little as Leader of the Opposition.

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