US debt limit, UK local and NZ elections

Democrats’ failure to pass a debt limit increase before Congress changed could bite them. Labour way ahead in the UK and gains some ground in NZ after Jacinda Ardern’s resignation.

Guest post by Adrian Beaumont, who joins us from time to time to provide commentary on elections internationally. Adrian is a paid election analyst for The Conversation. His work for The Conversation can be found here, and his own website is here.

The US debt limit is a legislative limit on the total amount of debt the US government can incur. As the US keeps running deficits, the debt keeps rising. Congress could deal with this issue permanently by either removing the debt limit, or increasing it to an arbitrarily high number. But instead Congress has only raised the debt limit enough to give about one year’s grace before it needs to be raised again. The last time the debt limit was raised was in December 2021.

The US already hit the debit limit on January 19, but the Treasury is taking extraordinary measures to delay a default; these measures are expected to last until June. While the US has never defaulted, there have been previous debt limit crises in 2011 and 2013.

The key reason for the 2011 and 2013 crises was divided government; Democrat Barack Obama was president, but Republicans held the House of Representatives. This situation applies now, with President Joe Biden, but Republicans holding the House. Republicans have attempted to use the debt limit to demand spending cuts.

Republicans only hold a 222-212 House majority, and it took 15 rounds of voting for Republican Kevin McCarthy to be elected House Speaker in early January. But right-wing Republicans extracted concessions from McCarthy, and the Speaker decides what comes to the floor. To keep the right happy, McCarthy is likely to deny a vote on any debt ceiling increase that does not include major spending cuts, and such cuts would be unacceptable to Democrats.

Democrats had unified control of the presidency, House and Senate until January 3 when the new House commenced. But they made no serious attempt to raise the debt limit, and avert a crisis until after the 2024 presidential election. If there is a default, the failure to raise the debt limit will come back to bite Democrats, the US generally and the world.

It currently appears unlikely that Biden will face a serious primary challenge for the Democratic nomination. Biden will be almost 82 by the November 2024 presidential election, and has had a disapproval rating over 50% in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate since October 2021.

UK Labour retains huge poll lead with local elections in May

Over 100 days since Rishi Sunak became British PM, Labour has about a 20-point lead over the Conservatives, with Labour in the high 40s, the Conservatives in the mid to high 20s, the Liberal Democrats at 7-10%, the Greens at 4-6% and the far-right Reform at 3-8%. On February 9, Labour easily retained West Lancashire at a by-election by 62.3% to 25.4% over the Conservatives (52.1-36.3 at the 2019 general election).

Local government elections will be held in England on May 4 and Northern Ireland on May 18. Most of the English seats up were last contested in 2019, at which Labour and the Conservatives tied on 28% each with 19% for the Lib Dems. If Labour wins these council elections by the crushing margin polls currently give them, there would be a huge number of Conservative losses, and Sunak would be under pressure, with the Conservatives perhaps moving back to former PM Boris Johnson. The next UK general election is not due until late 2024.

Nicola Sturgeon resigned as leader of the Scottish National Party on Wednesday. A weaker SNP would make it easier for Labour to win seats in Scotland, giving them a better chance to win an overall Commons majority if their current lead shrinks to single digits.

NZ Labour improves, but National + ACT still ahead

The New Zealand election is in October, with proportional representation used with a 5% threshold unless a party wins a single-member seat. Chris Hipkins replaced Jacinda Ardern as Labour leader and PM on January 22. Polls taken since this change have shown Labour narrowly ahead of National or tied, but the right-wing ACT is ahead of the Greens. So the combined vote for National and ACT is still ahead of that for Labour and Greens.

Recent election results

In the January 27-29 Czech presidential runoff, the pro-Western Pavel defeated the populist Babis by a 58.3-41.7 margin. At the February 12 Cypriot presidential runoff, the centre-left and nationalist candidate defeated the far-left candidate by a 52.0-48.0 margin after the conservative candidate was eliminated in the first round.

7 comments on “US debt limit, UK local and NZ elections”

  1. National had led consistently in NZ polls for 9 months since the end of the Omicron wave, but that was only a superficial lead.

    Hipkins is a hands-on type of leader. He could be hard to beat. Luxon will not appeal to most NZ women, except the retirees.

  2. I have seen this claim recently, that “there have been previous debt limit crises in 2011 and 2013”. Might have been from a BBC article, or perhaps the NYT, implying that debt limit crisis have only been a thing since 2011.

    In fact, debt limit fights, and associated government shutdowns, have been a regular feature of government in the United States since at least 1980.

    The whole point of the debt limit is to provoke these fights, which suits both parties as it gives them leverage to prune programs they don’t like and to get even more funding for programs they like in exchange for voting in favour of extending the debt ceiling, or if nothing else, to grandstand on government debt while actually doing nothing whatsoever about it.

    Another day, another debt crisis.

  3. “To keep the right happy, McCarthy is likely to deny a vote on any debt ceiling increase that does not include major spending cuts, and such cuts would be unacceptable to Democrats.”


    “If there is a default, the failure to raise the debt limit will come back to bite Democrats”

    I’d like to hear a reasoned argument that supports this, beyond pointing out that economic problems always hurt incumbents. (House Republicans are incumbents.) The way I see it is that the D’s will make sure everyone understands that should there be a default, then it will have been the R’s that tried and failed to defund various social programs and so chose to derail the economy instead. (McCarthy will be a household name.)

  4. aa,
    From what I’ve read and heard about Sturgeon and her legacy, it’s fair to say she was the powerhouse behind the independence movement since long before she became First Minister. More than anyone else, her very effective advocacy was instrumental in luring the great majority of Scottish youth to the cause of independence. That’s her greatest legacy.

    What role she will play in the future is anyone’s guess, but if I was an advocate of Scottish independence (which I’m not), I would love to see her take charge of the SNP in Westminster and hope like hell that their numbers are vital to secure a minority Labour government dependent on the SNP for all the spoils of office. Of course, there will be a price to pay for SNP support in the form of another referendum. Will Keir Starmer play ball…? We’ll have to wait and see.

    As to the Holyrood branch of the SNP, apparently there is no-one to match Sturgeon’s long experience, inspiration and drive. In general, rightist ‘nationalist’ movements sink or swim on their leaders’ charisma and popularity. However, as Sturgeon and others often pointed out, the SNP is a ‘national’ movement of a leftist persuasion. Thus, the seeds of independence will become embedded in Scottish culture that will outlive the vicissitudes of their leaders. That’s the soppy romantic view, but it will be interesting to observe the SNP’s future. Will it wither on the vine? Who knows?

  5. Republicans only care about the debt ceiling when the Democrats are in office.

    They had no problem increasing it under the previous administration,

  6. Democrats had unified control of the presidency, House and Senate until January 3 when the new House commenced. But they made no serious attempt to raise the debt limit…

    Why do you think they didnt do this Adrian?

    I agree with you that I dont see a political negative in doing it before Jan3. I see some positives in exposing the GOP house for what it has become but it is risky. I am not convinced the US voting public are all ears to Democrats pointing to the GOP nutters and saying “look at how crazy they are, dont vote for them in 2024” during a debt crisis. McCarthy will just say Biden refused to deal and the much of the public wont drill down further into what the cuts in that deal actually would have meant.

    I did read that Schumer explained that he wanted the vote to be bipartisan and they just ran out of time to get into it with Republicans prior to the holidays. Republicans werent switched on to it. Which seems a rather dusty explanation to me.

    Is this just a product of legislative malaise in Congress? I just cant quite believe it tbh. Why would Democrats allow the new House to have them by the curlies like this?

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