Labour's path to power twisted and full of potholes

Andrew Little's languishing Labour Party is reminiscent of National in 2002.

Andrew Little's languishing Labour Party is reminiscent of National in 2002.

OPINION: With just over two months until the election, now is probably a good time for a look at the likely shape of things to come.

Of course, nothing is set in stone. By now, however, the broad outlines are in place.

Labour appears to be bedevilled by the problems that plagued National in 2002. Recent surveys – including one leaked by its internal pollster – show Labour's already tepid support levels are flagging.

Like National 15 years ago, you get the feeling that nothing can jolt the party back to life this cycle. The question is whether its vote will collapse entirely. National's did in 2002, with fewer than 21 percent of voters giving it the tick.

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Information gathered by the New Zealand Election Study suggests that the party haemorrhaged votes to the Right wing, the centre and the centre-left (but not the Left wing). A large proportion of people who had previously intended to vote National also just stayed away from the polls.

If Labour disintegrates, you would expect something similar to happen. The Greens, National, New Zealand First and, probably, the Maori Party would all benefit to greater or lesser degrees. If The Opportunities Party starts to gain traction it might nab some of those voters as well.

Assuming that National's share holds at or around 45 percent, this might see the status quo returned. That is, National might retain its near majority and rely on its existing helpers to get it over the line. It wouldn't be a comfortable margin, but expectations of comfort went out with First Past the Post.

But what happens if National's share falters during the campaign? It could happen. When Labour went to the polls early in 2002, it looked invincible. There were even whispered ambitions of an absolute majority. But errors, mistakes and events all conspired to limit Labour to 41 percent on election day. The party still retained power but had to do a deal with the temporarily relevant United Future.

If this happens then we need to look at the potential coalitions and alliances to determine who has a realistic shot at power.

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A National-Labour coalition is out of the question under any sane scenario. ACT and Labour are unlikely to ever work together. The Green Party has all but ruled out working with National, making it clear that the thing it cares most about is that there be a Labour-led government.

National can count on being able to quickly reach an agreement with ACT. Peter Dunne's support will be quickly secured with a few baubles. While the Maori Party would probably prefer to be part of a centre-left coalition, it seems clear it can also work with National.

Can National work with New Zealand First, should the need arise? John Key once ruled it out, but that's a matter of history now. Winston Peters has a history of saying that the largest party should have the first crack at forming a government and that will almost certainly be National.

Labour once refused to deal with New Zealand First over his hostility to immigrants. That attitude softened when its votes were needed to secure the controversial foreshore and seabed legislation in 2004. Labour seems to have accommodated itself to New Zealand First's philosophy more recently and, indeed, has gone some way to adopting it.

Of course, Labour and New Zealand First will probably not be enough. Such a government would also require support from the Greens. There was controversy over this last fortnight, with the Greens accusing New Zealand First of racism and attempts at posturing over the possibility of being left out of government yet again.

The Greens conceded, however, that their stand against Peter's divisive rhetoric would not extend to keeping him out of government. And while one of the party's MPs suggested the party might force a second election if Labour and New Zealand First shut it out of government, co-leader James Shaw ended the week by conceding they would not do this. In other words, the Greens will have to take what they're given.

What does this all add up to?

At this stage, it looks like National has two paths to power. Under the best case scenario, it will be able to eke out another working majority with its present partners. In the worst case scenario, it will have to take a deep breath and try to cut a deal with New Zealand First.

Labour has just one path to power. The "only" case scenario involves National's vote deteriorating, its own vote holding up, the Greens and New Zealand First doing sufficiently well for the three parties to nose ahead of National and, finally, for Winston Peters to choose it over National.

There is plenty of water to go under the bridge yet. But, given the choice, I know in which position I would rather be.

 - Stuff

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