Such a situation is observed elsewhere in the world, with this process of ‘party renewal’ being ‘complicated by the political baggage a major party carries from a previous period in office’ (p.2). Rightwing parties often carry such heavy political baggage due to ‘the unpopular policy positions of a previous government…. [which] may remain entrenched in the public imagination’ (p.2). Hence, ‘parties have sought to “rebrand” themselves in order to publicly signify a definitive break with the failures associated with their previous periods in office’ (p.1).
Broome’s study of the rebranding process for National is meant to be a case study that will speak to the need for rebranding of rightwing parties in other similar countries. He gives examples where both rightwing and leftwing parties are discredited by past political baggage and hence kept out of government: ‘the British elections in 1992 and 2005, the Australian election in 2004, or the New Zealand election in 2005’ (p.18).
In the New Zealand situation, until recently, National was debilitated by being widely viewed as ‘overly ideological’ due to ‘the blanket association of the New Zealand National Party with the “bad old days” of neoliberal reform during the 1990s’ (p.3). For most of the 2000s, the Labour Party was able to exploit this negative brand of National’s.
National’s rebranding: Valence vs positional issues
Broome goes into detail to explain how discredited the National Party became during the 1990s, especially due to its radical two years of neoliberal reform in 1990-92, which contributed to an albatross around the party’s neck for the rest of the 1990s and most of the 2000s. And since the late 1990s, ‘the National Party made little attempt to undertake a more thorough rebranding process. Instead, National began to find itself increasingly on the wrong side of public opinion on key positional issues such as privatization, tax cuts, and public spending priorities’ (p.12).
Yet eventually, ‘several important elements gradually coalesced to help improve the public identity of the National Party brand. These included: (1) generational change in the parliamentary party; (2) policy differentiation on issues where National was able to win the public argument; and (3) the transformation of a series of former positional issues that significantly disadvantaged National into valence issues’ (p.12).
Within the literature on political parties and elections there are two ways in which parties are seen to be able to find support from voters – either by way of the positional model or the valence model. As Jack Vowles has recently written, in the positional model, parties win support by putting forward policies that coincide with the preferences of voters. This is normally thought of in terms of the left-right divide, with successful parties positioning themselves on the popular part of the political spectrum on the basis of policies, and these policies are normally quite different from your competitors. The valence model, in contrast, means that in the context of the decline of class voting, and the convergence of policy offered by parties, the different parties seek to convince voters that although their policies might not be totally different from their opponents, their particular version of the policy is a superior one, and the party is more effective at governing, with a better leadership.
Hence, in line with the valence model, National have been ‘embracing a more personalized political leadership style – centred around competing claims to competence on valence issues – in reaction to increased public scepticism towards grand projects for political change in a post-neoliberal era’ (p.1). The ditching of core rightwing policies and their replacement with key Labour government ones then occurred. Broome summarises the pragmatic adoption of Labour policies by John Key:
This included clearly signaling the party’s support, at least for the duration of its first term in government, for retaining Kiwibank… the Cullen superannuation fund… public ownership of key national assets… KiwiSaver… Working for Families… and interest-free student loans. These policy shifts effectively transformed controversial positional issues into valence issues, at the same time as diminishing the Labour government’s political advantage on the use of public funds in key spending areas. Precisely because these changes cut against the grain of National’s policy orientation during its previous period in government, reducing voters’ uncertainty over the future of popular policy programs also helped demarcate the “new” National brand from its (largely) discredited neoliberal reform agenda of the 1990s (pp.15-16).
But National has not totally ditched any differentiation with its opponent, and successfully fought on a small number of key issues in the 2000s, that somewhat helped underline the party’s shift away from the past. The two issues of policy differentiations that National was able to win the popular arguments on, and hence rebrand successfully, were: 1) tax cuts, and 2) issues of ‘nationhood and racial separatism’ raised most prominently by Don Brash. Broome says, ‘Taken together, these two positional issues helped National’s attempts to redefine itself as being on the side of majority opinion on controversial issues, and to paint Labour as increasingly out of touch with public sentiment’ (p.15). In addition, the successful rebranding was achieved ‘under John Key’s leadership from November 2006 [when he] accepted core Labour policies which had achieved a significant level of public support, and which it had previously strongly opposed’ (p.15).
Increase in the political marketing approach
According to Broome, National is not alone in its strong reliance on political marketing and rebranding:
parties in established democracies have increasingly turned to expert consultants, opinion poll data, and focus group research to provide the raw materials for rebuilding, or, less substantively, repackaging, their “party brand” to increase the public appeal of their policy platform (p.3).
In fact, everywhere, ‘the effective brand management of party identities has recently become a more salient factor in electoral competition across a range of difficult countries’ (p.6). Broome states that branding strategies have gained in importance due to the following four political changes in the dynamics of party competition in liberal industrialized countries:
- The decline of “tribal politics” where old voting constituencies are reduced, and swing voters more important to parties.
- A process of “de-industrialisation” associated ‘with a decline in the relevance of “left/right” social cleavages. ‘This may enhance the salience of political issues such as climate change, criminal justice policy, immigration, and foreign policy that cannot simply be slotted into a left/right matrix’ (p.7).
- The ‘emergence of a neoliberal consensus on economic policy, concomitant with a comparative decline in ideological debate and political contestation over “big ideas” with respect to macroeconomic frameworks among parties of different political hues across a number of countries… In short, major political parties in some countries are now viewed as having relatively less “clear blue water” between their preferences with respect to key components of macroeconomic policy than previously… Yet with the emergence of broad cross-party support for the mainstays of a country’s macroeconomic framework, party brands may have become more salient than ideological appeals on the basis of substantive differences in economic policy orientation in competition for votes, due to the lack of policy alternatives on offer’ (p.7).
- A ‘growing prominence of valence issues, areas where different political parties may espouse the same policy goals – which have strong appeal to voters – but compete over their claims to be competent to deliver on these share goals’ (p.7).
Obviously there’s some important issues and arguments made here, and it’s worth reading the paper in full for a better understanding of them.