National no longer a sure winner - poll

ALLIES A CONCERN: Prime Minister John Key
ALLIES A CONCERN: Prime Minister John Key

The next election could be a cliffhanger.

Today's Fairfax Media-Ipsos political poll shows Labour leader David Shearer shaking off a torrid first year in the leadership, and inching into contention to lead the next government, despite continuing doubts about his performance.

But National's support is still holding up, and it is only a lack of obvious allies that puts its prospects of a third term on a knife edge.

SLOW RISE: Labour leader David Shearer
SLOW RISE: Labour leader David Shearer

Today's poll puts National on 44.9 per cent - 1.3 percentage points down on our last poll in December, and back to where it was last August.

But the big story is Labour's slow rise under Shearer. The party is up 1.9 percentage points to 36.3 per cent, 3.7 per cent higher than in August.

The rise comes despite dissent within the ranks, heavy criticism of Shearer's leadership style, and a leadership challenge, all within his first year on the job.

Labour has now closed the gap with National to just 8.6 percentage points, compared with 20 points on election night in 2011. With Labour allies the Greens making up the shortfall on 10.7 per cent, the poll points to a much tighter race in 2014.

On today's numbers, it would be a dead-heat between a National-led bloc and a Labour-led bloc in a 122-seat Parliament.

That is a big concern for Prime Minister John Key, whose current allies the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture are unlikely to return in numbers, if at all.

NZ First is below the 5 per cent threshold - though no-one is writing it off yet - while the Conservative Party is next on 1.6 per cent, ahead of Mana, the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture.

Shearer took a gamble demoting leadership rival David Cunliffe after a stormy Labour Party conference late last year, but it appears to have paid off with voters. But the questions over his performance remain and some Labour MPs are believed to have withheld their vote of confidence in a secret leadership ballot this month.

Key, meanwhile, may have made a mistake hanging on to Education Minister Hekia Parata.

She has become one of his biggest liabilities, with a majority of voters questioned for today's poll of the view that he should have dumped her.

The backlash against a string of bad calls in her education portfolio is strongest in Christchurch, where she and her officials initially mishandled school closures.

With the election probably still at least 18 months away, the big battleground will be for undecided voters, who made up 11.1 per cent of those surveyed.

Pollster Duncan Stuart said a breakdown of undecided voters suggested many were "soft" National supporters, who had started looking around.


Fairfax Media