There is no one reason why National lost Northland. I’ve identified a dozen contributing factors. However they are not of equal significance. Some were very powerful, and others had some impact around the margins. They are:
- Winston. I doubt any other candidate could have taken the seat off National. It’s a vote for him as much as a vote against National.
- By-election. By-elections often go against the incumbent Government, as this Stuff article shows, and third parties often do well. In fact 49 years ago Social Credit won the seat, then called Hobson.
- Mike Sabin. The circumstances of his resignation were a factor. But even before that, there was growing discontent in some circles over his performance – especially when compared to the ultra-enthusiastic John Carter, his predecessor.
- The bridge upgrade promise. This backfired massively (ONCB poll said overall made people less likely to vote National) as it looked like a response to Peters. Peters got credited with the bridges, and National lost some credibility. If there was a case for doing the bridge upgrades they should have been announced before Peters was a candidate, and it should have been a Government announcement. Trying to credit the decision to the lobbying of the local candidate (who could not name them all) was insulting the intelligence of the public.
- The candidate. Mark Osbourne, if he had won, would be a very good MP for Northland. But National made the mistake of selecting the person they thought would be the best MP, not the person who could best beat Winston Peters.
- National’s campaign. The campaign appeared to be run from Wellington or Auckland, not Northland. This was, in my opinion, a mistake. National HQ is very very good at running national campaigns, but less so at electorate level campaigns. In a by-election of course the party HQ will be far more involved, but that doesn’t mean running the entire thing. I heard a lot of complaints that locals felt disengaged and being treated like staff, not volunteers. There wasn’t even a local campaign committee, or a local campaign chair. And when I asked who was running the campaign, I got told three different names.
- Winston’s campaign. Winston campaigned well. He never had a melt down, or an angry rant against the media. It was back to charming Winston, not angry Winston. And the bus was a superb idea. Would not have worked in say Napier, but in a large seat with so many small towns, it created a buzz whenever it pulled up.
- No downside to voting Winston. National failed to clearly and consistently articulate a reason to not vote Winston. This was always going to be quite challenging, but voters say they could have their cake and eat it too – a National led Government, and Winston as a high profile local MP. National needed to more aggressively remind people that Peters has destroyed pretty much every Government he has been in.
- Neglected Northland. Northland felt neglected. Actually most provincial areas feel neglected – and this is regardless of who is in Government. It is a sad reality that provincial areas almost always are losing people to the larger urban centres, and they feel central Government is not in touch so much. National has overall done very well in staying connected to provincial NZ, but there is always an under-current of feeling neglected that can be exploited.
- The polls. Winston was very fortunate that the two initial TV polls were done just days after National selected Osborne. Of course a brand new candidate would not poll well initially. If the initial polls had occured say a week later, then they might not have shown Peters ahead or tied, and not given him so much momentum. Polls can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Late start. With the benefit of hindsight, National should have started campaigning much earlier, and selected a candidate earlier. A three to four week period to select the candidate was too long. The Board should have set a 7 – 10 day timeframe for a rushed process, so the candidate could have had six to seven weeks to campaign, not four. Also the entire campaign apparatus should have sprung into operation the day after Sabin resigned. It looks like it mostly didn’t until after the selection. Some stuff you can’t do until you have a candidate, but not others.
- Tactical Voting. This had a major effect as seen by the Labour candidate getting less than 5%. It didn’t change the result, but it did impact the margin greatly. Labour did in Northland what they condemned National doing in Epsom and Ohariu – and it worked. Which is why parties do it.
The challenge from National is to learn from this. It needs to be humble, and admit that they made mistakes. There were some factors they could not control, but some they could. They also need to show at a national level, that they are avoiding third termitis.
Some on the left will claim this is the beginning of the end. Well they’ve been claiming that for around six years. The polls in Northland showed the party vote had not moved much. However it is the first significant loss in pretty much a decade, and may have a symbolic impact. The challenge to National is to acknowledge that Northland was sending a message, and that past performance is not enough for future elections.
Also the party should review the by-election campaign with the same thoroughness as the review done after the 2002 election. Learning from mistakes is how you win in politics.