Josie Pagani, Labour’s candidate for Rangitiki in the last election and, incidentally, my researcher for two years on Top of the Morning, has penned an interesting opinion piece in today’s Herald which the paper has headed “Workers lose faith in party with glum message”. Her theme is essentially that making people feel miserable about their lives is not a good way of getting them to vote for you. Helen Clark sometimes used the term ‘”shroud waving” to convey a similar message. I think Josie has a point, though it’s difficult for an opposition Labour Party during an election to avoid talking about poverty, unemployment, kids going to school without breakfast, the minimum wage and the appalling and widening gap between rich and poor in this country. Josie’s column led me to thinking of some other reasons why Labour did so poorly in the election. Some can be summarised in just a few words:
The extreme improbability of any political party in New Zealand being voted out after just one term in office; The nation’s love affair with John Key, without doubt the greatest exponent of the photo opportunity and ‘skinetics’ in the history of New Zealand politics; The relative lack of voter enthusiasm for Phil Goff; Earthquakes, mining and shipping disasters which, in media terms, disadvantage those not in power and unable to influence events; The Rugby World Cup, a convenient distraction for National shortly before the election; The general euphoria that winning the Cup produced; Widespread voter disengagement from politics, particularly on the Left. The self-fulfilling nature of three years of polls branding Key and National sure-fire winners and Goff and Labour sure-fire losers.
Labour’s courage in advancing policies that made long-term economic sense, but were highly unattractive to voters in the short term: a capital gains tax and raising the age of eligibility for the pension. I got to know, like and respect Phil Goff during the six months or so before the election. I’d written about him several times on this site. If he’d read them, he would not have found much that was cheering in those posts. I gave him little chance of winning the election. My arguments were essentially that he had been around too long, that defeating Key in his first term as Prime Minister was a virtual impossibility and that he was wooden on television. As it turned out, Goff won one of the three televised debates hands down and, in my submission, had an honourable draw in the other two. But it was simply too late. I suspect that if Goff had won all three debates hands down, the outcome would have been no different. The country wasn’t listening.
Nor was Goff helped by the idiotic decision of Labour’s campaign team not to have a Party launch and not to feature the Party Leader on any of their election billboards. The only possible interpretation that could be placed on this hare-brained scheme was that Labour was embarrassed by Goff and wanted him kept in the background. And that is precisely the interpretation that the media, political commentators and, I suspect, voters placed on it. It was certainly the interpretation which I placed on it and I branded Labour’s campaign team “idiots” on the Jim Mora programme. Some days later I received an irate call from a very senior member of that team who told me that a lot of people in the Party were very angry about my remarks and suggested that I really ought to pull my woolly head in. The conversation ended amicably enough, but I have since found no reason to change my view of this particular ‘strategy’ and still think they were idiots, albeit well-meaning.
I don’t know and haven’t asked whether Phil was himself party to this decision but, whether he was or not, it was an appalling misjudgement that undoubtedly damaged him at the worst possible moment in the campaign. Another serious misjudgement was Labour’s conviction that their campaign ace-in-the-hole was their opposition to the sale of state assets. That conviction was largely fuelled by the feedback they were getting from focus group research. My own view of this style of opinion gathering is that it is about as reliable as consulting the entrails of chickens. The sample size is too small and the scope for subjective interpretation too large. But Labour leaders seem dazzled by what they see as highly reliable scientific evidence, and questioning the reliability of focus group information is seen as akin to heresy.
If you ask a dozen New Zealanders in a room whether they are opposed to the sale of our high-performing SOEs, a clear majority will naturally say that they are. But their opposition will be intellectual rather than visceral, almost a case of what they think they ought to believe as good Kiwis, rather than something they feel in their guts or would change their vote for. So the focus group and other research that showed that most New Zealanders didn’t want state assets sold was probably statistically correct. What it didn’t record was that this was the head speaking, not the heart. Finally, Phil was probably not helped by Helen’s dramatic departure from the scene or by her ordination of him as Labour’s new leader.
Having served a parliamentary apprenticeship only three years short of hers, he might just have appreciated another three or six months to get his bearings and turn to her for advice. But it was probably never on the cards. On numerous occasions Helen said to me or Judy that being Leader of the Opposition was the worst job in the world. No way was she going back to that. It’s David Shearer’s turn now. He should probably take note of one major reason why Josie Pagani thinks Labour lost so much support: “We were seen as looking backwards, not forwards. We didn’t sound aspirational, we sounded miserable. We were turning up on people’s doorsteps telling them their lives were gloomy. And anyone who has ever been poor knows the last thing you want is someone telling you your life is crap.” “There was one age-old Labour message that always got me in the front door for a cup of tea and a chat – ‘Labour will create jobs. We’ve got a plan to do it. Just give us the mandate to get started.’”