New Labour set for New Zealand poll win

NEW ZEALAND'S Labour Party is poised to take power after nine years in opposition. The last major poll before today's election, in the New Zealand Herald, showed support for Labour surging to 39.8 per cent, up 2 per cent in the nine days since the paper's last poll.

That would give Helen Clark's centre-left Labour 50 seats in the 120- seat parliament, meaning it would have to form a coalition with the left- wing Alliance party and probably the Greens. The most striking feature of the poll was a 10 percentage point gap that has opened between Labour and the ruling Nationals, who are led by Jenny Shipley, the Prime Minister .

Yesterday Mrs Shipley went on her last pre-poll walkabout, in central Auckland. She sailed down Queen Street, the main commercial thoroughfare, like a battleship, leaving a trail of starstruck shoppers and office workers. Greeting all with her catchphrase "Hi, I'm Jenny, how are you?", she dived into shops, posed for photographs and pumped hands with the ferocity of a slot-machine addict. Following at a deferential distance was her loyal consort, Burton Shipley, a bank manager and former farmer whose two children she raised before entering politics. Her family have accompanied her, helping her project herself as a wife and mother who identifies with the concerns of Middle New Zealand - unlike Ms Clark, voters were supposed to infer. Ms Clark has no children and her husband, Peter Davis, rarely appears with her in public.

Mr Shipley has become something of a sex symbol during the campaign, with female journalists drooling over his rough-hewn good looks. But his popularity will not be enough to save his wife. There is a decisive mood for change and Ms Clark, who is offering free-market economics with a social conscience, looks set to be the beneficiary.

Although voters like Mrs Shipley, who deposed her predecessor, Jim Bolger, in 1997, they despise her government, particularly the assortment of small parties and independent MPs who gave her a razor-thin majority, enabling her to cling on until the end of National's three-year term.

Yesterday she listened to hard-luck tales from pensioners and clucked in horror when told by one woman of an 18-month wait for surgery. On a tour of a shopping mall she was careful to avoid a mother pushing a pram. She banned herself from any more contact with babies after one of her political adversaries, Winston Peters, said he would "throw up" if he saw her pick up a baby again.

Despite the poll indications, Mrs Shipley, who has been fighting a cold all week, told The Independent she was "very optimistic" that voters would swing back to her at the last minute.