Election lessons to future-proof 2020
The University of Auckland's Jennifer Lees-Marshment has some advice for the Labour Government looking to the 2020 election
It’s nearly a year since the 2017 New Zealand General Election swept the Ardern Government gloriously into power. But now the honeymoon is over, the magic stardust has evaporated and the Labour Coalition needs to prove it can run a competent government.
Arden’s brand personality was strong in terms of charisma, openness and energy, but it was weaker when it came to competence during last year’s election campaign and the Labour Party as a whole was not seen as capable of delivering its promises.
So what does Labour need to do now?
I can come up with answers to that question using research gathered before and after the election from more than quarter of a million voters who used the TVNZ Vote Compass online pre-election survey tool and via interviews with key political advisers. This rich source of data is published in my new book, Political Marketing and Management in the 2017 New Zealand Election, and if Labour wanted to take some sound advice drawn largely from issues and policy areas important to voters, then the timing couldn’t be better.
So to begin at the top – our research shows Ardern needs to build a stronger reputation for competence while remaining in touch. This is not easy for any leader because the more pictures the public sees of a leader jet-setting abroad and making formal announcements behind a podium, the less they seem connected to ordinary Kiwis. And the nature of government means crisis is never far away, as we have seen with repeated public sector strikes and the recent ministerial resignation.
New Zealanders want to see action on big social issues, but they also want good economic management and achieving progress with those constraints is not easy.
Further, Labour faces challenges with being seen as business-friendly, which is a concern given that Vote Compass data gathered before the election showed people want good economic management alongside social investment. Labour also faces challenges fulfilling its promises in government – but it is now time to deliver and to individualise the impact of new policies so people can understand the benefits to them personally.
In terms of political strategy, Labour also needs to avoid competing with potential coalition partners at the next election, explore leading in the area of Māori issues and retain existing support among youth and students.
The Labour team as a whole also needs to understand that it was lucky to end up in government, and like Justin Trudeau in Canada, may need to engage in a “listening tour” sooner than usual to generate new ideas for a second term.
And the others parties?
New Zealand First
Despite its role as king-maker in 2017, New Zealand First is in a vulnerable position. Our research shows that the party needs to maintain a distinctive platform at the same time as being part of a coherent government. Winston Peters' contradiction of the Labour Party’s stance on refugee quotas at Naru recently showed there is work to do here.
Electorally, the party needs to identify ways to satisfy its diverse supporters while being in government, as government requires compromise and adjustment which may not appease disgruntled voters attracted to Winston’s grand and simplistic promises. They need time out to think about how they are going to position themselves to create clear space and market share, and pre-test specific new policies on undecided voters to avoid being significantly out of sync with an important segment of the electorate.
The Greens also has work to do to retain its position as a party that offers cutting-edge fresh policies despite working as part of a Labour Government. It can no longer be a sideshow to the main act, yet it needs to retain its own identify to give voters a reason to get – and stay – behind them in 2020.
The Greens focus should be on its leadership and building support for the new co-leader Marama Davidson as well as building up the green-business credentials of James Shaw. Its policies are already strongly aligned with public views, but the leadership team needs to become more prominent and build a better relationship with both party supporters and the general public.
Analysis of Vote Compass data suggests there are several distinctive market segments the Greens can target such as middle-income earners and undecided voters, especially on environmental issues where there is already support for their policies. Zero carbon and plastic bags are already on the agenda, but ensuring the party carves out space to think up new environmental policy proposals that appeal to the middle-classes and provide added value to Ardern’s climate-change friendly disposition would serve it well in 2020.
Finally, National under Simon Bridges needs to create a strong alternative product to Labour. The party needs to reflect and reform: during the last election it was out of touch with the general public, undecided voters and their own prospective National voters. The new leadership needs to show respect for the outcome of the election, avoid attacking Labour at every opportunity, and work on developing a fresh new National vision and product that will connect with contemporary voters’ core concerns for more socially-oriented policies.
This requires significant discussion, further market intelligence, and openness to developing new policy positions. Making a mountain out of leaked expenses for his tour of New Zealand was a strategic error. National should defend the importance and value of spending taxpayer money on listening to and connecting to the public. The party also needs to re-orientate towards younger voters instead of relying on the senior voter.
Bridges’ drumming video was a good start on conveying a new team, but much more will need to be done to create and convey a convincing new product: Political marketing in practice is not easy.
When it comes to looking to the 2020 election, no party is safe; each faces significant challenges, including – if not especially – those in government. New Zealanders want to see action on big social issues, but they also want good economic management and achieving progress with those constraints is not easy. Political marketing practice requires removing any feeling of arrogance, keeping an ear to the ground, and focusing on delivering and developing policies that can achieve actual change in the areas people care most about. It’s not easy to do this in opposition, but in some ways it is even harder in government.
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