Political outlook: Polls say National set to return in 2011

When Prime Minister John Key commented on an opinion poll last week and said "that's a great way to go into Christmas," he wasn't exaggerating.

The TV3 survey showed National comfortably above 50%, where it has been all year in most polls, and leading Labour by more than 20 points.

Sunday night's One News poll confirmed the happy position Mr Key found himself in as he left for his summer holiday -- National on 55%, Labour on 33%.

Going into an election year the government can feel confident that unless something catastrophic happens it should be able to start the election campaign, probably in November, with a second term in its grasp.

Although Mr Key is a remarkably popular prime minister, the situation isn't all that unusual.

Helen Clark's Labour government was also very popular in its first term after winning the 1999 election, and in 2002 National suffered the worst defeat in its history.

Bill English was ousted as leader by Don Brash, who nearly won in 2005, and he was replaced by Mr Key, who won in 2008.

Labour will be hoping that particular scenario isn't repeated, because going into the 2002 election the only story in town wasn't whether Labour would win a second term – it was how badly National was going to be beaten and whether Labour might win an outright majority in Parliament.

It didn't win an outright majority and National, despite the extent of its popularity now, isn't expecting to do it next year.

Labour's poll ratings are in the low 30s now, but it isn't far off the 34% in gained in 2008. Its supporters haven't left in droves, the way National's did in 2002, and it would be unusual if the gap between the main parties didn't close in the run-up to next year's election.

But history and commonsense says Labour is heading for a second term in opposition. The past three governments have run for three terms, and the current one certainly doesn't look like a one-term wonder.

Labour can still put up a credible performance if the policies it rolls out next year are attractive to voters, and if it can improve on its 34% it will give itself a real chance in 2014 – better than National had after the 2002 annihilation.

Labour leader Phil Goff's future depends on it as well. If Labour crashes and burns, so will he. If it shows it can put up a decent fight he could survive another term, although there could be forces at work to destabilise his leadership.

Right now there isn't a challenger, with finance spokesman David Cunliffe the only one on the front bench who looks like a possibility. He isn't showing any sign of wanting the job, but if the caucus became restive after a poor result the circumstances could change.

Minor parties
The Greens seems sure to return. They are polling well in most surveys, sometimes above the 6.7% they won in 2008, and their target of 10% of the party vote is achievable if their belief is correct and voters are taking more notice of environmental issues and sustainable development now than they were in 2008.

The party has regrouped after the loss of Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford. Co-leaders Russel Norman and Metiria Turei are good campaigners, there has been a broadening of policy perspectives and they should be able to at least ensure they keep the nine MPs they have now.

Act has problems of its own making and its poll ratings are very poor after the Heather Roy deputy leadership debacle and the departure of disgraced MP David Garrett.

Rodney Hide's Epsom seat, which he must retain if Act is to survive in Parliament, is really in the hands of the National Party. Epsom is their territory, if they decide they want it back they can almost certainly take it.

At present the indications are they will let Mr Hide keep it, but any more self-inflicted damage by Act MPs would be likely to cause they to say enough is enough.

The Maori Party is different to the rest because it doesn't rely on the party vote. It has five electorate seats and it will be shooting for the other two, which Labour's Nanaia Mahuta and Parekura Horomia hold.

At the beginning of this year it was easy to see the Maori Party making that clean sweep in 2011, but it isn't now.

Legislation that will replace the Foreshore and Seabed Act is giving it big problems, with iwi submitters to the select committee that held hearings on the bill putting up strong opposition to the test for customary title.

The government isn't likely to back down on that and the Maori Party, which is committed to supporting the legislation, could face serious voter dissatisfaction.

Its supporters might not turn to another party, they are more likely to not vote at all.

The Progressive Party is finished and United Future is barely showing on the opinion poll radar. Its leader Peter Dunne will have to fight hard to keep his Ohariu seat.

Since MMP was introduced in 1996, support for minor parties has diminished. There could be fewer of them in Parliament after next year's election, which many voters would probably regard as a good thing.

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