Was Labour’s election loss in 2008 a ‘benign dismissal’? Therese Arseneau is not so sure that it was. Certainly National’s 2008 win was the result of a much cleverer and pragmatic electoral strategy than in 2005. Furthermore, although not unexciting, the campaign was rather lackluster, without any significantly defining issues, polarisation or passion. This is what Arseneau writes about in her chapter in the new post-election book Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008 edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts. [Read more below]
Why National won – being Labour-lite
Therese Arseneau has written a comprehensive concluding chapter in Key to Victory, summing up why it was that National won and Labour lost in 2008. Previously in her chapter about the 2005 general election (in the book Baubles of Office), she was severely critical of National’s electorally-poor strategy of cannibalizing votes from other rightwing parties, ‘clearly differentiating the party from Labour by moving further to the right’ – a silly strategy under MMP. All this achieved, she says, was ‘the consolidation of the right-of-centre vote into National’ (p.285).
In 2008, by contrast,
National finally adopted an election strategy suited to winning an MMP election. Under John Key the party softened its rhetoric, moved towards the centre on several key policy issues and challenged Labour for the crucial centrist swing vote. This strategy was intended to grow National’s vote primarily at Labour’s rather than at its allies’ expense (p.285).
Thus, National’s victory was somewhat hollow, in that the party won the election but lost the main policy war:
Labour can take some comfort in how National achieved its victory – by moving towards the centre of the policy spectrum and by agreeing to preserve, in its first term at least, several of Labour’s most prized programmes, such as Working for Families and interest-free student loans (p.287).
Having capitulated on these issues, and becoming vulnerable to the label of “Labour-lite”, ‘National effectively controlled the policy agenda in 2008. The major issues that dominated the campaign – the economy, law and order and the “the nanny state” – were National’s issues’ (p.280).
Why Labour lost - negative campaigning in 2008
Labour ran an ambiguous trust-oriented campaign in 2008, which Arseneau says, was effectively a negative attack on National. She questions the wisdom of this strategy, as ‘There is much debate about whether negative attacks work’, and ‘It is not clear that negative messages work well in New Zealand. National’s decision to “go negative” in the 1999 election campaign was, at best, ineffective and, at worst, counterproductive’ (p.286).
Being a government on the attack was not a good look, and possibly made Labour’s negative attacks even less effective, according to Arseneau. It all was probably judged rather harshly by the public:
Criticising National for a lack of policy and Key for his flip flops on issues were both potentially effective; making fun of the numbers of “ums” in his speeches and labeling him “Slippery John” were not. Similarly, Mike Williams’ high profile “dirt-digging” trip to Melbourne backfired badly. Labour’s delivery of the attack was also problematic. All too often their modus operandi was overly personal and petty. Not only did it make Labour look churlish, it also risked sparking a public backlash. In deciding to go negative in this way, it was Labour who “put it all at risk” (p.286).
Arseneau ponders whether Labour’s eventual loss was a ‘benign dismissal’ (as argued by Labour’s Grant Robertson) in which voters merely got a bit tired with the status quo, or whether the vote was a more negative indictment of Labour. She examines such things using all sorts of statistical data, which I won’t go into here, except to repeat a couple of points that stood out for me:
- ‘This was Labour’s second lowest share of the vote since 1931; its lowest was in 1996’ (p.273).
- The two-party swing in the general electorates ‘was uniformly from Labour to National – on average across New Zealand a swing of 8.2 per cent (McRobie 2008). In Helen Clark’s own electorate, Mt Albert, it was 11.2 per cent – the highest vote swing against Labour in the Auckland region…. The magnitude and near uniformity of the swing away from Labour was the crucial story of the 2008 election – and this swing was not benign’ (p.278).
The minor parties – in decline
Arseneau examines the abysmal state of New Zealand’s minor parties. She draws attention to ‘the continued resurgence of the major parties’ as being ‘an important feature of the 2008 election’ (p.273). After all, in the first MMP election of 1996, minor parties received 38% of the party vote, but by 2005 this was down to only 20%, which might have been seen as an aberration if not for the fact, Arseneau says, the vote was about the same in 2008 – 21%.
Further evidence that this was not merely an aberration can be seen in the low rates of voters actually identifying with minor parties (regardless of how they vote): ‘the percentage of voters expressing an attachment to the smaller parties in the form of party identification is steadily declining as well: around 22 per cent in 1996 and 1999; 19 per cent in 2002; 16 per cent in 2005; and down to only 15 per cent in 2008’ (p.274).
Partly this decline is related to the role of minor parties in coalition governments under MMP. The experience of coalition governments has been very negative for all minor parties – they have often been ‘outgunned by the major party and found it difficult to strike the right balance between being a cooperative governing partner and remaining distinct with their own policies and identity’ (p.288). Significantly, Arseneau points out that ‘Thus far, under MMP, every small party formally part of the government, irrespective of whether in coalition or associated via an enhanced confidence-and-supply arrangement has lost support in the following election’ (p.288).
Yet, Arseneau does wonder whether some of the newer constitutional arrangements surrounding coalitions might be helping the situation. She also argues that although National and the Maori Party might not, ‘at first glance, look like a natural governing fit’, there are some strong ideological connections between the two, as well as complementary electoral strategies, that might make the coalition work very well:
Ideologically there is a small “c” conservatism in Maoridom which fits more naturally with National than with the more socially liberal Labour Party. Furthermore, National and the Maori Party are complementary in electoral politics – the Maori Party’s success comes predominantly at Labour’s, and not National’s, expense (p.289).
A lackluster campaign lacking polarization or passion
Overall, Arseneau thinks that the 2008 campaign was somewhat lackluster, and without ‘passion’ and ‘polarization’, yet at the same time it had some rather ‘remarkable elements’ which made it interesting. Her chapter is a good summary of all these things.
Table of contents
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Overview of the Election
2008: Key to victory
- Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: Key to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The last baby-boomer election - Colin James
2008: Leadership during transition - Jon Johansson
Political Party Perspectives
National - Steven
National - Steven Joyce
Labour - Grant Robertson
The Greens - Catherine Delahunty
ACT - John Boscawen
The Maori Party - Rahui Katene
The Progressives - John Pagani
United Future - Rob Eaddy
New Zealand First - Damian Edwards
New Zealand’s party system: a multi-party mirage? - Jennifer Curtin and Raymond Miller
2008: Images of
political leadership in the campaign - Claire Robinson
2008: Images of political leadership in the campaign - Claire Robinson
2008: Media coverage of the election - Babak Bahador
2008: The international media and the election - Aljoscha Kertesz
2008: The campaign in cyberspace - Nicola Kean
2008: The YouTube campaign - Rob Salmond
behaviour and the keys to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: Voting behaviour and the keys to victory - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
2008: The impact of the Electoral Finance Act - Bryce Edwards
2008: Opinion polls and prediction markets in New Zealand - Shaun McGirr and Rob Salmond
2008: National’s winning strategy - Therese Arseneau
Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008
Levine, Stephen (ed)
Roberts, Neil (ed)
Victory is the
story of the New Zealand general election of 2008, in which the experienced and
long-serving prime minister, Helen Clark, was ousted by a political newcomer –
National’s John Key.
Veteran academic commentators Colin James, Jon Johansson, and Therese Arseneau offer perspectives on what New Zealanders were voting for when endorsing John Key and National, and what they were voting against. Several MPs elected for the first time in 2008 provide first-hand accounts of their parties’ campaigns, including Labour’s Grant Robertson; the Greens’ Catherine Delahunty; the Maori Party’s Rahui Katene; ACT’s John Boscawen; and the director of National’s winning campaign, Steven Joyce, appointed to Cabinet following National’s victory. New Zealand First’s doomed campaign is described by its campaign director, Damian Edwards, while party strategists John Pagani and Rob Eaddy provide accounts of the Progressive and United Future campaigns.
Key to Victory also investigates the important issues of the 2008 election, such as the impact of the Electoral Finance Act, and the likely future of New Zealand’s remaining small parties.
During the 2008 campaign political parties started getting to grips with websites, blogs, Facebook and YouTube, and ‘prediction markets’ competed with traditional polls in forecasting the election results. The book describes these developments and provides insights into the use of the media by John Key and Helen Clark in their rival campaigns for leadership. International reaction to the New Zealand campaign and the country’s vote for change is also highlighted.
Key to Victory includes a special DVD with excerpts from key campaign events including the televised leaders’ debates, the leaders’ opening night campaign addresses, parties’ TV ads and campaign billboards.