Written By: - Date published: 10:12 pm, February 12th, 2019 - 18 comments
Categories: act, Amy Adams, greens, labour, maori party, national, new conservatives, Nikki Kaye, nz first, polls, Simon Bridges - Tags: MMP, poll watch, pollwatch, threshold, vote consolidation
Kia ora koutou readers, and welcome back to the first Pollwatch of 2019, and as our official Worst News™ will tell you, (okay, maybe that’s my opinion of their recent coverage rather than an official thing) it’s a doozy.
Part of the reason I started modelling elections probabilistically myself is that looking at just the most likely result of a poll confuses you. This poll is definitely one of those- you would miss its biggest, most worrying implications (for both left and right!) if you simply looked at the number of seats each party gets in the most likely scenario, and ignored the chances of various governing arrangements and the implications of the approval ratings. Assume my usual cautions about waiting for a second poll to confirm dramatic results are in effect here, please.
This is, on its face, an amazing result on the left: no conservative nationalist party you have to compromise with, National in utter defeat even if they don’t eat ACT like they’ve promised to try to, and the Greens still around… or are they? In actuality, this simulation run had them knocked out of parliament 45.4% of the time. (The astute among you will note that means that 17.8% of the results had Labour winning so many seats that they wouldn’t even need the Greens to pass laws!)
This means that once we consider this poll result probabilistically, however, we see Labour aren’t actually behind the governing threshold. The most likely outcome is that they can govern alone, when you consider the Greens being under threshold and the Greens not being needed as essentially the same scenario. (They’re materially different in some ways, but not in terms of setting broad government policy)
This is the second result showing the possibility of an outright Labour government since Ardern became Prime Minister, and the third where National’s chance of governing relied entirely on the whole poll being rogue. It is however the first showing it as the most likely outcome.
We on the left should be worried about this- we’ve already killed off two of our seven serious parties last election. Even though I’m personally quite happy to see NZF gone, (they are definitively under threshold here) I would still like a more credible centrist party to replace them, and push Labour and the Greens back a bit more to the left.
We should also be very wary of results near the threshold of governing alone. Parties that have been in that position before have found that it tends to make people reconsider voting for the opposition- no election has ever delivered such a result, and with good reason. Kiwis voted for MMP to avoid having only two choices. Not having friendly critics to the left or the centre will merely embolden Labour to make choices that may not be right for all of us. Smaller parties are an important conscience in our system, and we need to either have stronger results for the ones we do have, or have a few more, for our democracy to remain healthy. I hope people seriously consider that when they vote in 2020.
It’s also worth noting that Labour should want either NZF or the Greens to be polling at the 7% level before the election. 7% is high enough to be completely out of risk of falling under the threshold on a statistical level.
Now, while I have plenty of criticism of Newshub in general and their political section in particular, they have done something really, really good in this poll: they are publicly releasing their approval/disapproval figures for Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, an actually reliable way of tracking how our two nominally most senior politicians are doing. Ardern is of course smashing it, with a rocking 52% net approval. (net approval being the percentage of people who approve of her performance less the percentage that disapprove, basically her margin of awesomeness) Despite his name, Bridges is underwater with an abysmal -28.9% net disapproval, news that would, if National has any intention of trying to win the 2020 election, have him rolled as leader immediately.
Let’s put this in context for a moment- Donald Trump, the President who has apologized for white supremacists, seperated underage children from their families to persecute them for crossing the border, had an immigration ban struck down as racist, put a credibly alleged rapist on the Supreme Court, and basically failed to do anything substantive except tax cuts, controversy, and discrimination, and is basically objectively the worst US president ever, currently has a net disapproval rating of -11.9%.
This is because, unlike Bridges, Trump commands the support of a whopping 88% of Republicans. (to be fair, identification as Republican is going down, too, so it’s likely that this remains high because people are tending to quit his party and claim they’re independents rather than protest him from the inside) If we assume absolutely nobody who voted for ACT, the Conservatives, TOP, or even NZF, Labour, and the Greens supports Bridges’ performance as Leader of the Opposition, (a ridiculously charitable assumption) Bridges would command 53.4% approval among National voters. That’s also abysmal, and let’s look at two controversial US Presidents to show you why- both of them had impeachment hearings.
Bill Clinton, right after his impeachment began, had a net approval rating of about 30%. That’s right, he was above water when Republicans decided to take a shot at him. At his very, very lowest, he still had an 11% net approval. And at that point, he still commanded the approval of 82% of his party, when he was revealed to be a cheater, a liar, and had tried to discredit his own aide to cover up for himself. This is a man whose public supported him more than Simon Bridges.
In contrast, let’s look at one Richard Nixon. At the start of his impeachment, he was underwater, too, at about -36%. (American figures are rounded to the nearest percent for this, sorry) At his worst polling, he had -42% net disapproval, a figure we should regard as an automatic resignation threshold for a leader, as we can hopefully agree Nixon held on for way too long. New Zealanders, for all our faults, are at least very intolerant of the appearance of corruption, and between backing Sarah Dowie who’s being investigated for harmful digital communications, thinking Jamie Lee Ross would make a good whip, going Trump-lite when New Zealanders hate that type of politics, and making the Labour government look competent by comparison despite its scandals, it’s definitely time for Bridges to go by any rational standard.
If Bridges’ approval is in decline, he’s just two or three months away from being in post-impeachment Nixon levels of popularity. That’s an absolute indictment on his stale, by-the-numbers attempt to keep National as a credible opposition-in-one-party. National voters have hung on because they felt cheated by coalition politics and because they wanted another crack at the election. Other leadership hopefuls have stayed united under Bridges because they have recognized 2020 as what it is: a hill so steep that any sane leader would refuse to climb it. So they backed stand-in Simon, and kept on the deputy nobody really wanted. They’re saying they don’t want to constantly change leaders like Labour did in opposition, but the reality is that if you can’t deliver, you need to try something new. National hasn’t managed it yet.
I can see two credible roads from here. One is to admit defeat soon, roll Simon as leader after the party vote continues to fall as he drags it down with him, and elect Collins as replacement. This represents a continuation of their existing strategy, but with the additional risk of alienating their centrist, socially moderate or socially liberal supporters, who won’t have a bar of Collins as their leader, although if there is a ready and credible political vehicle for such supporters to desert to that’s not aligned with the government, this option starts to make more sense.
The other is that someone like Adams, or Kaye steps forward and contests the vote, and wins. This person would still likely fail to win the 2020 election, so they would likely try to delay the vote late enough that they would not be held fully accountable for losing, and get another shot in as Leader of the Opposition. The problem with this route is that none of the people with limited degree of appeal and talent in National really want to try their hand as Leader of the Opposition until it looks more likely that they’ll win, as being opposition leader essentially starts a countdown timer on your career as party leader that might prevent you from becoming Prime Minister.
So either way you look at it, this is a poll that shows continued consolidation of the vote for Labour and National, something that should be viewed as bad news for both parties under MMP. They each need to think about how they make more friends, say, by lowering the threshold, deliberately splitting off parties with genuinely different ideologies with their blessing, or by other types of electoral reform.
I would note that, if we changed the law to allow any party that won their first seat outright, and assume that the Māori Party’s 0.8% is higher than 0.83%, then we would have 1 MP each for ACT, (from their electorate) the Conservatives, and the Māori party. We’d also retain four MPs from New Zealand First. This would be a very easy way to set a natural threshold that keeps out joke parties even on current results, allows small parties to die natural deaths when they become genuinely unpopular rather than simply take a little dip into micro-party territory, and makes it easier to clear that first hurdle into Parliament for new ideas to be debated on the national stage. I also scales well when next we need to increase the size of Parliament, and gives larger parties a chance to eat their friends a little without actually eating all of them.
(We actually have less MPs per person now than we did just before we added another 21 MPs to Parliament, so we might want to think about allowing it to grow sometime, and while we’re at it, changing the South Island quota (it currently just adds electorate seats as the North Island’s relative population to the South Island grows. A better way to handle it would be a minimum number of South or North Island seats, and a minimum number of list seats that the Electoral Comission can adjust without new laws) and the ratio of electorate seats to list seats to a set proportion, so that we still have enough list seats left for a proportional result if National or Labour ever get a result near 20% in a general election)