AM I GUILTY of wishful thinking, or are the times really a-changing? If I still took any notice of opinion polls, the answers, respectively, would be “Yes” and “No”. There is, as yet no empirical evidence of a major shift in electoral allegiances. Unfortunately, in these times, that sort of data only seems to become available after the electoral picture has been radically defaced.
More and more people, according to the psephological post-mortems of both Brexit and Trump, are either refusing point-blank to speak to pollsters, or flat-out lying to them. The burden of representing the popular mood is, increasingly, falling to the well-meaning and the well-heeled; the believers in conventional wisdom; or, more worryingly, to the purveyors of unconventional ignorance.
Which only leaves me my gut – and my gut is answering, respectively, “No” and “Yes”. This is not wishful thinking. A big political shift is underway.
And because this is New Zealand, the shift is being registered in the electorate’s responses to – and the reactions of – its political leaders. Like iron filings scattered on a white sheet of paper and then positioned over a magnet, New Zealand’s politicians are arranging themselves along unseen but irresistible lines of force.
Those who have been following Andrew Little around the country have noticed the change. Where once the Labour leader would turn up to meet and greet embarrassingly small audiences, Little’s entourage are now reporting audiences in the hundreds.
Winston Peters knows all about this particular barometer of the public’s appetite for change. His scorn for polls is based upon their inability to capture the peculiar temper of a political crowd. The way it lets the man or woman standing behind the microphone at the front of the hall know whether or not their messages are getting through. The shiver of recognition with which it greets the telling example; the shocking statistic.
Maybe Crosby-Textor’s polling techniques and focus-group analyses can replicate this. Maybe not. What they cannot replicate is the almost erotic intimacy between speaker and audience, audience and speaker. When that connection is made, the impact on both parties is formidable. The audience’s faith in the politician soars: as does the politician’s faith in himself.
Then there’s the evidence of the ballot-box itself. The Mt Albert By-Election, for example, could have produced a very different result. After all, the electors were presented with two, strong, centre-left candidates, and no candidate at all from the governing party. At least one journalist, who had followed the campaign closely, suggested that the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter was good for 30 percent of the votes cast. In what was essentially a two-horse race, it was a perfectly reasonable expectation.
But it was not the result. Labour’s Jacinda Ardern walked away with nearly 80 percent of the votes cast, leaving Genter with a measly 11 percent. Reasonableness had nothing to do with it.
For Little, himself, it’s as if the impenetrable fog blanketing Labour’s leadership since 2008 has suddenly lifted, revealing a clear pathway to victory. From being ham-fisted and flailing, Little’s gestures have become purposeful and precise. For the first time in nearly nine years, Labour appears to have a leader who sees where he’s going, and knows what he’s doing.
Just as suddenly, the same fog of misfortune which had formerly enveloped Labour has wrapped itself around Bill English and the National Party. The self-assured political touch of John Key has been replaced by ill-considered improvisation and counter-productive communication. English cannot seem to avoid either insulting or upsetting the electorate. If he’s not dismissing young New Zealanders as drug-addled layabouts, he’s informing them that they’ll have to wait an additional two years before becoming eligible for NZ Superannuation.
From having a National prime minister who worked tirelessly at being “Everyman”, New Zealand finds itself saddled with a prime minister who appears to have it in for every man, woman and child unfortunate enough to have been born outside the top 10 percent of income-earners.
Have they told the pollsters this? Not yet. But that’s probably because they have yet to admit to themselves that their love affair with National is over. How many of us, after all, are all that keen to admit to a relationship gone bad? In our heart, though, and in our gut, we know that something has shifted irrevocably: that the love has gone.
Inevitably, the day comes when we are no longer afraid to say: “It’s over.” Call it wishful thinking if you like, but my gut is telling me that, for the New Zealand electorate, that day will be Saturday, 23 September 2017.