Act’s disappointing performance in the opinion polls in 1995 very quickly lead to a re-evaluation of their political message. The fact that the party was run by marketing professionals, entrepreneurs and managers meant that the party and its message were always treated largely as a ‘product’. The background of the personnel involved, therefore, had a significant influence on the party’s development. [Read more below]
Being a ‘product’, rather than a traditional party, meant that Act developed in a very different way to regular political parties. The leadership heeded all the usual product development strategies that they had transplanted from the commercial markets in which they had first developed their ‘expertise’. This meant that, first, the party was more poll-driven than it was ideology-driven. Second, it meant that the product development, testing and re-development of the party occurred in a very short period of time – more akin to that of a new chocolate bar than that of a political movement and philosophy.
Within months of the party’s launch and then failure, the party leadership were quickly attempting to alter the policy mix and branding. This compares with the relatively slow transformation of most other political parties. It seems that while most political parties take a somewhat ‘long-term’ view and judge their success or failure carefully before readjusting their party’s identity, Act was remarkable for their urgency in conceding failure and attempting to re-launch a new version of the party.
The fact that Act were not making a connection with the public also led to party-wide re-evaluation and reflection on the party’s efforts to sell itself. According to Carr, Roger Douglas ‘felt certain that all we had to do was put one proposition to the country: Why would you vote to be poor?’ (Carr, 1997: p.92).
However, the problem, as far as Carr was concerned, was a much greater one of party identity – or the lack of it:
it didn't matter much what was said; the problem was different in kind.... The view I came to... was that Act was a political party or nothing, and proceeding from that, the point of a political party was the politicians. Everything else - the advertising, the membership, the public relations drive - these were all secondary to the politicians' being the heroes of the organisation. There was no message without a messenger. The public weren't listening to what we said, they were looking at who we were. At this point, logic suggested that if we could get Ruth Richardson and Richard Prebble to join Roger Douglas in a triumvirate we wouldn't have to say anything at all about what the party was about (Carr, 1997: p.92).
The party from this point in time, focused less on its policies and more on selling the Act personalities and leadership.
Next blog post: The new leadership