Does data detail Bridges' demise?

Simon Bridges. Photo: NZ Herald
Simon Bridges. Photo: NZ Herald
The recent release of two different and starkly contrasting political polls generated a significant amount of news and debate over the past week. It isn't hard to see why.

While a Newshub/Reid Research poll had Labour on 50.8% and National on 37.8%, a Colmar Brunton poll released on One News showed National leading Labour 44-42. Much has been written since about the variance, and the potential reasons behind it.

Other than speculation, the polls have allowed very little analysis for all but one issue: the ongoing suitability or otherwise of National leader Simon Bridges. Both polls had Mr Bridges sitting at 4%-5% in the preferred prime minister column, while colleague Judith Collins was a point or two above him. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is consistently hovering around 50% in the same category.

It is easy to conclude Mr Bridges' departure as opposition leader is imminent. After all, there are clear reference points for what poor polling does to opposition leaders in this country - the demise of former Labour leaders David Shearer and Andrew Little was directly attributable to polling data.

Mr Bridges may well be heading down the same inglorious path as those two discarded leaders. That the public has not warmed to him is consistently borne out by data. But unlike the situation the former Labour leaders faced, National is not polling badly. In fact, when certain contextual points are accounted for, National is polling strongly.

No opposition party can command much attention in the middle of a government's term. The dust from the last election has settled, the next election is still far off and the government of the day is pulling purse strings, making decisions and answering to those decisions. The opposition's views are more "white noise" than at any other point in the political cycle.

It is also true popular leaders carry parties with them. New Zealand didn't warm to Labour until Ms Ardern was appointed leader, and her current position was delivered as much by Winston Peters as it was by voters. Yet over the ensuing months Ms Ardern has received - and excelled in - enormous exposure.

Meanwhile, National has lost a great deal of experience in the past few years. John Key, Bill English, Steven Joyce and Chris Finlayson have moved on, leaving not just a reduction in experience but a reduction in public recognition and respect. Despite these factors National - even with an unpopular leader - is polling neck-and-neck with Labour.

It is also worth considering the potential backlash to Mr Bridges being replaced. While Ms Collins is polling better, she is only doing so marginally and is arguably less palatable to the all-important middle New Zealand voter. There is no-one else being discussed as a potential candidate.

In fact, Mr Bridges' continued role as leader may demonstrate to voters the National Party places solidity and pragmatism over personality - that the party is not hysterically reactive to the whims of polls and media baiting. If the party was to replace its leader, the current veneer of calmness would be shattered. It would surely take a very bankable candidate to make such a move worthwhile. But who is that candidate?

Despite Mr Bridges' lacklustre polling numbers, a large percentage of voters appears unimpressed by the current Government's performance. Is Mr Bridges' lack of "X-factor" going to convince those voters to move left of centre in the next 15 months? It seems unlikely.

In fact, it is not hard to imagine the National Party losing more votes than it gains by replacing Mr Bridges with anything other than an exceptional alternative.

Perhaps, despite the polling data, National's best strategy will be to knuckle down, ignore the leadership chatter and show a contrasting approach to the personality politics so widespread around the world at the moment.



Jacinda was a rising star in international socialism prior to going into parliament. She had already proven herself in a global leadership role. Simon Bridges has an impressive academic and legal background but not in leadership roles.