Electoral debrief, Ruth Laugesen

Left Turn: The New Zealand General Election of 1999
ed Jonathan Boston, Stephen Church, Stephen Levine, Elizabeth McLeay & Nigel S Roberts
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734042

Up the hill from Parliament, a clutch of Victoria University’s political scientists have introduced a new date into the political calendar. A few months after each of the last two elections, hard-core political junkies have raked through the entrails under the supervision of Boston et al. Academic observers, journalistic pundits and political players all weighed in, bringing an enjoyable mingling of perspectives. Left Turn brings together the papers from the post-1999 election conference.

The highlight, for sheer frisson, is the political campaigners. Just after an election is one of the few times they can afford to let their guard down and indulge in soul-searching and hand-wringing, however briefly. As Left Turn shows, a few did that, giving some valuable insights into the thinking behind some of the major party campaigns. Given the effort political parties put into hiding inner doubts behind smooth exteriors, any pulling back of the covers is instructive.

National, still absorbing its election defeat, did not deign to send its campaign manager Jeff Grant to explain. Instead National list MP Annabel Young fronted. A former Territorial, Young patiently marks out her quarry. She maps out the military definitions of a well-executed strategy. Strategy is a long-term plan, tactics are short-term skirmishes, and the military commander or political leader who confuses the two is in trouble.

Good strategy, like cheese, takes time. Planning and implementation should emerge over three to six years, not the brief three months of an election campaign, she observes pointedly. And good strategy should be clear to everyone, not a dark secret. It becomes obvious she considers National failed to meet even the most basic standards of a coherent campaign:

Even amongst National party supporters there was confusion about National’s overall strategy. It appears that National confused campaign tactics with having a strategy; for example, the timing of the election is a question of tactics, not a matter of strategy, but this was openly discussed as a strategy issue … National may also have confused operational control and strategic control, allowing the advertisements to be the strategy rather than follow it. From the inside, it appeared that the National campaign demonstrated good operational control, but even party activists were unclear about the strategy. In some cases, it led to local paralysis. National’s confusion of strategy, tactics and operations may have been a result of being in government. It seems that incumbency led to an assumption that being in government was itself the strategy.

 

Her critique, logical and thorough, remains the most detailed and frank public analysis by anyone in National of organisational and strategic shortcomings at the last election.

Brian Donnelly, a senior MP with NZ First, bares his soul too, giving a rare glimpse into a party which is secretive to the point of paranoia. He outlines the atmosphere of gloom which permeated the party after the collapse of the coalition with National, and the defection of many of its MPs. And he gives an insight into the unique perils of being a bit player in the Winston Peters show.

For a time during the campaign it looked like Donnelly might be able to upset National in the Whangarei seat. Local Labour and Alliance voters appeared willing to back Donnelly in order to vote out National. Then Donnelly’s prospects in the seat unaccountably fizzled. According to Donnelly, the reason was Winston Peters. Polls came out showing Peters might lose in Tauranga, and the anti-Peters voters in Whangarei saw a glimmer of hope that they might be rid of Peters. They told Donnelly that they couldn’t risk putting him in Parliament, because it would mean that he would take Peters in on the party list. Donnelly surmises glumly that the average punter knows more about how MMP works than is often claimed.

One theme that comes through again and again, from both the political parties and the observers, was that Labour and the Alliance had a winning strategy set in place well in advance. Each party spent the three years in opposition carefully examining the obstacles to re-election. Labour overcame issues of trust by promising a set of achievable policies that found some popular targets. The party also neutralised the tax issue by announcing tax policy early and taking the hits. The Alliance meanwhile groomed itself to be Labour’s ideal accessory. It toned down tax and other policies to avoid scaring voters. Together the two parties managed to make peace well out from the election in order to calm voter concerns about disunity on the left.

And, as Annabel Young says, a really good strategy goes for not just three years, but six. So the outlines of next election’s strategy should be becoming evident now. For Labour, you can certainly see the shape. Its priorities in government are a seamless continuation of its pre-election policies. Helen Clark will go into the next election holding her credit card aloft, saying she has kept her word.

The same clear trajectory can’t be seen for the Alliance. Despite the election slogan that it would be “the heart of the new government”, the only policy it is sharply identified with so far is the People’s Bank – not really a “heart” issue. The co-operative relationship and concessions to Labour continue, but the electoral benefits from harmony have gone mainly to Labour. Alliance chairman and campaign director Matt McCarten was frank post-election about the problems ahead. He told the Left Turn conference that the Alliance had failed to communicate its brand during the campaign:

People were unsure exactly what the difference was between Labour and the Alliance. They knew that the Alliance was more “left” than Labour, but they did not know what that meant. Ultimately, that lack of clarity made the difference in the campaign. We still have that challenge before us. If we cannot differentiate ourselves from our coalition partner over the next three years, then we will be in grave trouble at the next election.

 

Eighteen months out from the next election, National similarly seems to be having trouble setting out a clear new branding that will overcome voter aversion. It is working on a relationship with ACT, as Labour did with the Alliance. It is attacking Clark’s strong- arm style, but it has yet to identify any major itches that Labour is not already scratching.

The Greens are a happier sight for the budding electoral strategist. If good electoral strategy means being well positioned early in the electoral cycle, then the Greens are sitting pretty. They have a clear policy niche and unsullied personal reputations, the very embodiment of “clean and green”.

Left Turn brings into sharp relief how precarious the political landscape still is for the small parties that had hoped to flourish under MMP. More voters moved back to the two big parties last election, with most of that gain going to Labour. New Zealand First and the Greens only just survived the 1999 election. Their success was in doubt not only through much of the campaign, but even after the votes were counted. The Greens and their six MPs came into Parliament on the special votes, while NZ First held on by a cigarette-paper-thin margin in Tauranga. ACT suffered a severe blow with the loss of Wellington Central. Survival will be a more keenly felt issue for the party as it goes into the next election.

The fate of the little guys isn’t just a niche concern. They help determine the governing prospects of the big old parties. Labour has two potential allies. One is the rising Greens, the other the sagging Alliance, who nevertheless have an insurance policy in the form of Jim Anderton’s Wigram seat. National has a tougher job under MMP. If ACT can’t make it next election, it is difficult to see how National can.

 

Ruth Laugesen is a Wellington journalist and political commentator.

 

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