Grant Robertson blogs:
One of the great joys of being interested in politics is the debate over strategy and tactics. Everyone has an opinion. All parties, and people within parties have these debates. Personally I don’t always agree with every tactical decision made by my own party, as I am sure that is the case for most politicians.
But one thing that fascinates me is when people decide that a party can only focus on one thing at a time. Case in point. In the last few days Labour has been raising issues to do with spending by National on the Diplomatic Protection Squad and on painting Premier House. The pretty simple idea here is to show a party that tells New Zealanders to tighten their belts, but is happily overspending, and has its priorities wrong.
Now I expect our political opponents to adopt some kind of diversionary response. On these issues it has taken National a while to get something, but it has arrived, complete with NZ Herald editorial to back it up. Labour is focusing on the small issues, they should be focused on the big policy issues.
Ok, that is a political response, but let’s not give it too much credit. Just because Labour is raising these issues does not mean that we are not raising other issues. I am sure it will not have escaped readers of Red Alert that we have a major campaign on stopping asset sales. The New Zealand Herald who are criticising Labour’s approach today attended the launch of the asset sales billboards put up by Labour last weekend, but chose not to cover it. So much for the focus on the big issues.
Grant says that parties can do more than one thing at a time. Of course they can. They can do, and often are doing, dozens of things at a time. But that is not the issue. The issue is that the media will not run dozens of different political stories. If you put out lots of stories, then don’t complain when they don’t choose the one you want. Labour’s chances of getting publicity over say asset sales is diminished everytime they decide to complain about the cost of painting Premier House. TVNZ and TV3 are not going to run two stories that day about what Labour has said.
Parliamentary parties tend to have a media office – the press secretaries. An outsider might assume the role of the media office to to help MPs to do press releases. In fact, often their role is to stop MPs doing press releases. When you are an Opposition MP you want to be getting your name out there so you try and do as many releases as possible. The problem is that if you allow every MP to be firing off press releases on their pet issues, you get no co-ordinated message. When I worked for National in opposition, I’d say MPs would have happily fired off 25 press releases a day if the media team didn’t stop them. Normally they could slow the flow to 5 or so.
Labour are lacking internal discipline. Even putting aside the truly bizarre rants now appearing on Red Alert, they get distracted by what they see as “easy hits” and don’t stay focused on a consistent message. One message they have been trying to push is about the cost of living. Now if you really want the public to focus on this as an issue, you need to bang on about it ad nauseaum. It takes sometimes a dozen stories for things to register with those not overly politically interested.
So what Labour should have done on cost of living is collect enough stories about increased costs, and for at least four weeks in the House ask questions on it every day – doctors fees, grocery prices, school fees etc etc. And do press releases every day on it. And have all the MPs do their weekly local columns on it. And most of all not to run off after some other issue such as the PM has bodyguards after a couple of weeks. You need to be relentlessly on message – even if the press gallery complain you are boring them. If you give the media two stories to report on, they’ll not choose the one you have been hammering away on. So you need to be disciplined. A campaign should run for months, not days or even weeks.
Now Grant and others might feel I am giving them bad advice, because I don’t support them. Now I don’t actually do that – I have enough of an ego that I never would give advice which is obviously bad, because that makes me look stupid. But regardless of that, maybe they will take heed of Rob Salmond, who is a former staffer for Labour. Rob at Pundit says:
But Labour could have kept on talking about policy anyway. If it had released its proposals on how to fix our schools or bring down the cost of living or protect the environment, they would have been covered. Labour made no such large-scale announcements. Since March. In an election year. When down 15 to 20 points.
They should have. During this later period, the National-Labour gap in our poll of polls has grown by almost 2.5%.
To be sure, there is a steady stream of criticism of the government’s policies coming from Labour MPs, and it is good that they are doing that. But that kind of empty rhetoric is never going to attract much attention. It is just what the opposition does.
And the increasing tendency to target small amounts of expenditure specific to John Key and other Ministers is altogether unhelpful. Maybe Labour could attract some fleeting interest out of an extravagant helicopter ride or two. But painting the Prime Minister’s house? Providing him bodyguards? Please.
Moreover, this kind of muckraking against popular Prime Ministers does not work. Take, for example, the most high profile equivalent attack against Helen Clark – the speedgate scandal from July 2004. This one at least involved public safety and not just relatively minor sums of money. The three firms polling at the time collectively had National leading Labour by around one point just before the scandal broke, and a few weeks later had Labour leading by around four points. Not exactly a practical vindication of this kind of tactic.
My advice to Labour is to lift your sights and start to talk positively. Quit calling John Key a dick. New Zealanders collectively do not think he is a dick, and the last three years of polls suggest they are pretty firm in that view.
Rob is absolutely correct here. Labour are using tactics which might work against a tired third term Government, but don’t work against a fresh first term Government with a PM who polls as the most popular New Zealand has had.
Instead, tell us what specifically you are going to do for New Zealanders after November. And no, “more than that dick John Key” is not a good answer.
Labour have an opportunity with the budget next week. The Government borrowing is now at $380 million a week. One can finger point over blame as politicians will do. But will Labour lay out their path to reducing the deficit and debt?
, Rob Salmond