Labour’s problem with political management

Labour needs to stop focusing on problems and show it's capable of delivering in government if it wants a shot at winning the election, writes the University of Auckland's Jennifer Lees-Marshment 

As a political marketing and management expert, there are two core things my research has taught me parties need if they are to win an election. One, they need to be responsive to voters' concerns and two, they need to show they are capable of delivering in government.

The first is about political marketing - researching voters’ wants and needs, and creating a product that includes policies and a leader that responds to them. The second is more about political management – showing unity, leadership and good control of your party so voters believe they can trust you to run the government.

In recent decades, thanks to the growth of market research and political strategists, parties have generally become effective at political marketing. But political management is where they fall down.

In political marketing terms, Labour is more in touch with voters’ concerns than National. They have raised all the right issues and focus on the problems facing ordinary New Zealanders.

But their problem is political management. They have not demonstrated that they can do anything about the problems they raise. They have spent too much time talking about National, and too little about their own solutions.

And now Andrew Little has just stepped down from leadership of the Labour Party, eight weeks from the election, and after the billboards with his face have already gone up across the country.

New leader Jacinda Ardern may be able to connect with the public more effectively and give them a temporary boost in the polls. But it does not mean they will win the election. And this is because of political management, rather than political marketing.

A change of leadership at this stage shows disunity and lack of political management, and these are all things Labour was weak on already. They needed to plug a hole in their delivery capability, not blow it wide open.

Of course, the turbulent nature of this election means it is really impossible to predict the impact of a new leader. We are facing an election with tremendous uncertainty. Everything is to play for. No clear leader has emerged. Whilst National has always been ahead, the polling of Bill English is not strong enough to enable predictions of a clear win, and there is little point being perceived as good at delivering if what is being delivered is an unwanted product.

A change of leadership at this stage shows disunity and lack of political management, and these are all things Labour was weak on already. They needed to plug a hole in their delivery capability, not blow it wide open.

The results of recent elections around the world suggest we cannot predict the result - and that was before Andrew Little resigned. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was predicted to lose to sitting PM Stephen Harper until polls changed in the middle of the 2015 campaign. Donald Trump was not expected to win the presidency in 2016. In the UK Brexit was not supposed to happen and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did better than expected in the snap election earlier this year.

One hope for Labour is that these elections suggest a triumph of passion, policy and authenticity over delivery. The Canadian Conservatives under Harper, like the NZ National Party under English, had a superior track record of delivery but lost to the ‘sunnier ways’ of Justin Trudeau. Donald Trump appealed to populist wants and simplistic proposals, losing to Hillary Clinton’s carefully worked out policies and superior delivery capabilities.

Will Labour’s ‘Kiwi Dream’ brand win over National’s delivery competence?

In political marketing terms, it might. But the problem is Labour don’t seem to be backing their own brand. They also seem to be focused on hanging out the dirty washing instead of cleaner whites. Imagine an ad that showed you the stains left from old soap powders but never showed you the clean washing from the new powder. Would you switch to the new product? Labour needs to talk about what they’re going to do instead of talking about the problem with National.

And in political management terms, a change of leadership only goes further to undermine Labour’s political management. Remember the ad National did with the Labour/Green boat going nowhere? Imagine what attack ads they can produce this time. And the downside of Labour focusing on problems instead of solutions in the run up to the campaign is voters may feel the crises facing the country are so great only an experienced, competence government can handle them and they will vote National in again just to ensure stability.

Political management in opposition is not easy, as Labour has so aptly demonstrated for us. But political management in government is harder. When New Zealanders vote they are choosing who gets to run the government for the next three years. Whoever is elected will manage a budget of more than $90 billion a year and have hundreds – maybe even thousands – of staff at their disposal. The chances of any newly-elected President or Prime Minister delivering campaign promises are slim. Politicians and their staff do not get training in how to run government. And there are profound challenges to getting things done in government – many more than in opposition.

Labour may have attempted to rescue their political marketing by changing to a more popular and charismatic leader, but in doing so may have reduced their chances of winning even more as it further undermines their political management abilities. If the new leader is to do one thing, it is this: show the country you are an effective political manager and can get things done. Otherwise having a great product will do nothing if no one believes you can deliver it. Focus on cleaner whites, not dirty laundry.

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