The general election on September 19 is already over. A poll by Labour’s polling company, UMR Research, was “leaked” this week showing Labour is at a stunning 55 percent, with National dropping under the critical 30 per cent threshold to 29 percent.  

UMR going on record to confirm the findings was telling. National’s pollster Curia Research didn’t deny the findings, either. That’s because their polling is showing similar results. 

UMR and Curia are the best in the polling business. Unlike other polling outlets, these companies are staffed by hard-nosed experienced politicos who know their dark craft. They don’t get paid a million dollars apiece over a three-year cycle by sugarcoating or misinterpreting their data for their political paymasters. 

In the last three months, UMR has conducted three polls and Curia two. All five polls have Labour beating National in a head-to-head fight. National’s downward trend is now in free fall. UMR’s polls from February, March and April show the Labour-National results as 42-38, 49-35 — and now 55-29. 

In February, Curia had Labour 41 to National’s 35, and in April, Labour soaring to 49 with National dropping to 31. With this momentum so close to the election, National has no chance. No wonder they’ve begged recently for the election to be delayed. The only question is: How much of this huge lead will Labour be able to retain?

Devastating for National is that all five polls have the Greens and NZ First over the election threshold with an average of 7 percent and 6 percent respectively. Added together, that would give the government parties around two-thirds of parliament if an election was held now. 

This sort of seismic shift never happens in politics. Labour could govern alone. Fortunately for her partners, such selfishness isn’t in Jacinda Ardern’s nature. But Winston Peters will have to get used to seeing the Greens in cabinet as equals. Maybe he’ll decide to retire on a high after the election, and hope Shane Jones can carry on his legacy. Ardern could always make him Governor-General. 

When Simon Bridges got National’s top job, I was concerned that he was a boy in a man’s suit. Unsurprising to me, he hasn’t been able to grow into the leader’s role. Ardern, in the same time, has effortlessly fitted perfectly into the prime minister’s attire. 

She is lauded in this country, and feted as a leadership icon around the world, while Bridges flounders as an embarrassing and irrelevant lightweight. He exudes desperation and panic. 

In any serious crisis, the people instinctively want to rally around a leader. The opposition has no choice but to be publicly stoic and supportive for sake of the country. Criticism needs to be carefully strategic and not appear to be cheap politicking. None of Bridges’ conduct reflects that strategy. He is tone deaf and lacks any nuance. 

Leadership is earned in a crisis. People worried in the early days if Ardern would have the grit and judgment when she was inevitably tested. After the Christchurch massacre, White Island, and this pandemic, she has put any doubts to rest. 

Long-term prime ministers succeed because they earn respect. Ardern’s recent judgment and political instincts rival those of John Key and Helen Clark. But she has something extra that dwarfs her predecessors. People feel her kindness and empathy. Throw in her positivity and her quiet competence, and we see a leader that even central casting couldn’t have invented. 

Add her relative youthfulness, an adoring partner and a child, and we have a trailblazer for newer generations and a rebuke to older generations that you can manage families and careers. 

But her greatest strength is that we trust her. Helen Clark, Ardern’s former boss and mentor, recently summed up her appeal with the comment that people believe Ardern has their back. She’s right. We see nothing fake or contrived that the public relations and image spin doctors who normally surround politicians see as essential. She has not rewritten the political rule handbook — she has thrown it away. 

No wonder the rest of the world envy us. In a well-deserved, fawning editorial headed “New Zealand Got Everything Right” in The New York Times this week, Ardern was described as providing “decisive action, strong leadership” and “clear communication”. This sort of laudatory coverage around the world is now the norm.      

It’s accepted by political insiders that the Leader of the Opposition has the toughest job in politics. As it should be. It tests any pretender to the throne. To be fair, Bridges could never compete directly with Ardern. Nor should he have tried. It was the same dilemma for various Labour leaders against John Key. What Bridges had to do was focus on playing to his strengths and lifting his game, which in time would have earned him respect. He has failed. 

Bridges’ personal ratings were never high. But provided National kept ahead of Labour in head-to-head polls, his colleagues would have given him the time to develop into a competitive candidate for prime minister. But this year, the polls show the parties’ ratings have switched. Bridges’ incompetence and political misjudgments can no longer be ignored. The gig is up. 

National has always been more ruthless than Labour in pursuing power. It knows what impending doom smells like. The current polling shows National can lose upwards of 18 MPs. Nothing focuses a politician’s mind more than losing their job. Even the likely survivors in safe seats know they will never be ministers. A mutiny is certain. 

It was reported this week that Bridges’ deputy, Paula Bennett, has already been canvassing her colleagues. National observed Labour’s decade in opposition with a succession of leaders who couldn’t inspire confidence among their colleagues. And they all had personal poll ratings higher than Bridges. 

Ardern’s personal rating of 65 percent to 7 percent for Bridges is stunning. It seems even National voters want her. Fewer than one in four of ever-decreasing National stalwarts support Bridges. 

It will only get worse from here. National knows Labour’s surge is coming directly from National centrist voters. Worryingly for them, Ardern’s coalition partners are maintaining their vote. 

As centre-left voters feel more confident that Labour will cruise to victory, many of them will flick their vote to the Greens as insurance. Many National centrists will give Winston Peters their vote for the same reason. Even Act will benefit as National’s right-wing libertarians jump from the sinking ship. Ardern’s rising tide will sink National’s ship, while at the same time lifting her small parties’ boats.

To avoid this calamity, National has no choice. If they don’t know that, they deserve the tsunami that will hit them in September. They can no longer hope to win the election from here. But losing a swag of seats in opposition is just grossly irresponsible. Their template is the flawless transfer between Andrew Little to Ardern just weeks before the last election. It can work. Except, they don’t have an Ardern.

Personally, I hope they keep Bridges in place. I’m sure Labour and her allies do, too. Get the popcorn and take a seat. Let’s see how this plays out.


Matt McCarten (Ngāpuhi) is a unionist with a long involvement in politics, mainly as a political strategist and organiser with the Alliance and then the Labour Party, where he was formerly chief of staff. He’s based in Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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