The New Zealand Labour party has continued an extraordinary surge in support under the month-old leadership of Jacinda Ardern, with a new poll putting it at a 10-year high and for the first time ahead of the governing National party in campaigning for September’s general election.
Ardern took control of the party on 1 August with Labour at an all-time low in the polls and has almost single-handedly reignited its chances of forming the next government.
Labour’s projected share of the vote has risen from 26% to 43% since Ardern, 37, became the party’s youngest-ever leader, and Labour now stands two points ahead of the National party led by the prime minister, Bill English. The election takes place on 23 September.
Ardern and English met in a leaders’ debate on Thursday in which English was asked in the opening question: “Bill, why are you losing?”
Ardern, whose charisma and rising popularity have prompted domestic media to coin the term “Jacindamania”, told the moderator Mike Hosking that she was not taking anything for granted.
“I’m certainly not going to decide that it’s somehow a done deal right now,” she said of Labour’s poll lead.
English and Hosking tussled over the poll and whether the prime minister could reveal another private polling number, which he claimed was better.
The debate between the two leaders was dominated by housing, tax and immigration. English attacked what he called Labour’s “vague and confusing” policies and reiterated his party’s tax cut policies. “People can’t go shopping with your values … every person in New Zealand who does not have children will be worse off under Labour,” he said.
Ardern attacked National’s record on housing, reiterating a Labour plan to build 10,000 houses a year. Home ownership rates in New Zealand have fallen to their lowest since 1951 and affordability is one of the greatest challenges, after a 34% increase in prices in the last three years.
English said affordability was better than it had been in 2008 due to low interest rates, to which Ardern replied: “Tell someone in Auckland that a $150,000 deposit is affordable.”
Ardern’s biggest challenge going into the debate was expected to be holding her own on economic issues alongside English, who is a former finance minister, and claims that Labour lacks clarity on future tax plans.
Labour’s fiscal plan includes spending an additional $20bn over four years. Ardern said the money would come from cancelling tax cuts, paying off debt more slowly and cracking down on international tax avoidance.
English asked whether Labour would tell meat workers why it would take $1,000 a year from them by cancelling tax cuts to make university “a bit cheaper for lawyers”. Ardern had announced on Tuesday that she would fast-track a Labour policy to phase in three years of free tertiary education.
Political analysts were divided over which of the party leaders came out on top. Grant Duncan, an associate Professor of political theory and New Zealand politics at Massey University, called it a draw. “The moderator put more pressure on Jacinda compared with the challenges to Bill over his government’s performance, handing Bill the advantage,” he said.
The New Zealand Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young, favoured Ardern. “It was Bill English but not as we know him. He sounded as though he has been in a debating bootcamp for the past week, learning about gesticulation, intonation, brevity and how good it is to smile.
“It doesn’t come naturally to him. She [Ardern] looked relaxed and assured and won hands down on presentation.”