Below are a series of thoughts and reflections on the 2014 General Election.
Labour maximised the electorate vote whilst National maximised the party vote
Labour’s caucus can read polls and they acted accordingly knowing both their brand and leader were toxic and so sought re-election as good electorate MPs. Such an approach necessitated an electorate vote first campaign leaving pursuing the all-important party vote almost as an optional extra. The result was Labour led the party vote in only five General electorate seats. Had this been a FPP election (admittedly different campaign tactics would’ve been employed as well as the fact that voter tactics would change), Labour could have been reduced to only 11 MPs! National MPs campaigned only for the party vote because their sitting MPs were comfortable in the knowledge that National’s polling meant all incumbents were safe on the List. National candidates in unwinnable Labour electorates still pitched in as promoters of the party vote. MMP elections are won from the party vote – that truth is the first course in NZ Politics 101.
Voters saw Nicky Hager’s “Dirty Politics” as the biased distraction it was
The release of ”Dirty Politics” led to an unprecedented commandeering of media oxygen to the detriment of Labour and Opposition parties. Whilst National copped some temporary flak over revelations of Slater’s and Collins’ correspondence and influence, Key’s sacking of Collins over the Adam Fealy SFO interference allegations lanced that boil and drained off the political poison. Hager’s one-sided publishing of Slater’s emails only with National party connections so close to the election smacked of deliberate bias and, when added to the fact that the emails were illegally hacked, it lent an air of shabby partisan opportunism to Hager’s work.
Kim Dotcom proved to be lousy at politics
Dotcom singlehandedly gifted National an absolute majority. His farcical ‘Moment of Truth’ gave National an almost immediate 2% poll bounce that only the last public poll (the Herald Digipoll) picked up. Dotcom sub-contracted his political hit job on John Key to a rag tag group of ageing angry lefties (Laila Hare, John Minto and Hone Harawira) and assumed throwing millions at the ‘youth’ vote would do the job. Young voters are only moved by inspirational aspirational charismatic visionaries and none involved with Internet Mana fit that bill including Dotcom himself. By paying Hare and Harawira a salary, both had to contort themselves through huge rhetorical hoops to ward off constant accusations of selling out their working class roots to a rich German capitalist who had a track record of abusing his workers and not paying them enough or on time. Bringing a left wing journalist to NZ and linking to two hackers on the run for leaking top level classified material five days before an election in an attempt to oust NZ’s most popular Prime Minister in a generation went down like a cup of cold sick with voters.
Spy issues are beltway issues
Labour, the Greens and NZ First used up hundreds of Parliamentary Questions in the last Parliamentary term trying to nail John Key on the Dotcom raid, the employment of GCSB head Ian Fletcher and on the reforms to the GCSB. None of these issues resonate with floating voters and middle NZ. Most are convinced of the need to have some targeted surveillance and that the government has put in motion adequate protections.
The power of the mainstream media has been diminished by their conduct in the campaign
The mainstream media are excited by beltway issues and mostly lack the ability to understand how centre right and floating voters respond. They chased the Hager book revelations like lemmings over a cliff when voters wanted policy analysis and proper debate. Likewise Kim Dotcom’s sideshow. The left wing bias of key media players was laid bare even more blatantly and their breathless reporting of anything remotely damaging to Key made it easier for voters to see through it. The wide reach of bloggers like Whaleoil and Kiwiblog gave the right the ability to get their message out and make rebuttals to the Hager claims independent of the media filter.
New taxes are vote killers
If you are going to persuade the country to accept a new, complex and controversial tax, you’d better be on top of every minute detail and be able to explain its complexity in short digestible sound bites. Cunliffe had four years to get the Capital Gains Tax right and to be on top of every detail but also for his party to work out the maddening complexities especially after Key foot tripped Goff in the 2011 election Press debate over the same issue. His failure to do so spoke volumes for his inability to match Key as a Prime Minister in waiting and also how fiendishly difficult CGTs are.
Unity of your caucus is vital
National looked like a unified team while Labour’s barely concealed factional rivalry has been on display for the last six years. Labour’s relationship with its erstwhile coalition partners was also fraught vacillating between embracing the Greens (thus scaring centrist voters) and eschewing them as competitors for the left wing vote. Voters can add and could see that Labour could only govern with the Greens and that a substantial minority Green presence in Cabinet was likely. Likewise with Internet Mana – Cunliffe knew he needed them had Hone Harawira won TTT but he knew the Dotcom connection was becoming electorally poisonous. The result was NZ being offered a rag tag bunch of disunited lefties vying for power inside an uncertain coalition versus National’s minor and innocuous accommodations it made to keep its partners onside. National’s rowing TV ad magnificently encapsulated this problem.
Fundraising is important
National did a good job and Labour didn’t. Moira Coatsworth (Labour Party President) and Tim Barnett (General Secretary) thought that knocking on doors was beneath them. It helps that National is a winning team and donors prefer winners and that they are more business friendly and businesses tend to have more funds to donate than individuals. That said, Labour have the advantage of the substantial in-kind donations from the grassroots support the unions give to their cause.
Yelling and talking over your opponent is not debating
Key’s calm demeanor in the debates was in marked contrast to Cunliffe’s at times desperate aggression. When you are so far behind in the polls, you have to deliver knockout blow after knockout blow. Debates rarely shift polls in western democracies unless a killer one liner emerges like “show me the money” in 2011. Key’s CGT question that flummoxed Cunliffe came close and rebounded negatively on Cunliffe despite the fact that he proved himself to be an able debater in the strict definition of the word.
Frustrated voters in Christchurch didn’t blame earthquake insurance issues on the government
The messy and time consuming insurance settlements did not result in voters blaming National. National won the party vote in all the Christchurch Labour seats sometimes by big margins. A majority of voters see progress both in the CBD and residential red zone and, even though the infrastructure improvements are inconveniencing, people know the government is spending big in Christchurch. Slowly but surely more and more claims are being settled and, whilst it is supremely annoying and frustrating for some in Christchurch, few saw Labour as offering an alternative that could ease their plight.
If you are going to form an Internet Party then make sure your leaders are internet savvy
Dotcom’s model was the German Pirate Party that secured over the 5% threshold in four German state Parliaments and the European Parliament. By installing passed over political hacks from the left like Hare and Corkery and paying them a salary (something unprecedented in NZ politics), it completely negated any appeal the IP might have had for the internet focused youth vote. The fact that no one at the top of IMP had a clue about the internet became glaringly obvious from the outset confirming the impression with voters of NZ’s most awkward political alliance.