Why was Labour turfed out of office in 2008? Colin James puts down the Government’s electoral decline to Labour’s ‘failure of political management’ in areas such as the Electoral Finance Act and the so-called anti-smacking bill, as well as generally being punished for pushing a heavy socially liberal agenda. Labour also lost the electoral fight to show that it was the toughest on law and order. James says that the victorious National Party got there due to John Key’s ‘bland leading the bland’ strategy, which now results in a managerial ‘government by MBA’. James writes about these issue and others in a chapter entitled ‘2008: The last baby-boomer election’ in the new post-election book Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008 (edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts). This blog post highlights some of the salient points made in this chapter. [Read more below]
Labour’s failure of political management
A significant part of this chapter attempts to explain why it was that Labour was turfed out of office. James puts it down the Government’s electoral decline to Labour’s ‘failure of political management’. By this he means that Labour failed to control certain political issues, which led to significant self-inflicted damage to its image. There were apparently ‘a string of failures of political management throughout 2007 and into 2008’ of which the worse two examples related to the so-called anti-smacking law and the controversies over political finance.
By August 2007 Helen Clark was letting another argument Labour should have won slip by default into defeat. Labour had been caned by the Auditor-General, on dubious legal advice from the Crown Law Office, for misuse of parliamentary funds for its pledge card in the 2005 election. The right public relations response would have been to back down quickly. Instead, Labour initially – and for quite some time – dug in and only reluctantly conceded it should pay up and get out. That looked arrogant, and arrogance doesn’t go down well with New Zealand voters. Labour’s legislative response to that and to the heavily financed attacks on Labour and Greens by the Exclusive Brethren in the 2005 campaign (with National’s acquiescence) was much worse: a bill to regulate election campaign financing that contained a clause on advertising so bizarre that it gave wide latitude to Labour’s enemies to build a case that Labour was denying free speech. Only very late did the Cabinet take the resultant outcry seriously, and even then it left the legislation in a form that confused even the Electoral Commission which was required to interpret it. That shambles called into question the government’s competence to manage its own business, let alone the business of the country (p.44).
James goes on to say that, ‘By early 2008 when [Labour] fumbled a public appearance with Owen Glenn, revelations of whose generous backing of Labour (and New Zealand First) had become an embarrassment, the government looked ragged’ (p.45).
Labour’s self-damaging social liberalism
James identifies the third term of the Fifth Labour government as being characterised by its social liberal agenda that was out of synch with the general electorate:
Labour – with the Greens heavily complicit – added to their already extensive social/moral liberalisation agenda with controversial measures to legalise civil unions, protect prostitutes and stop physical punishment of children. Cumulatively, this typecast Labour as ultra-liberal and solicitous of minority groups, at odds not just with National-side conservatives but also with conservatives among its own wage-worker core vote, lower-income people in the provinces and the suburbs, including Pacific Islanders (pp.51-52).
Of course, Labour already knew – and still knows – that it was vulnerable on social liberalism, which is now at the core of what the party is all about and seems unable to pull away from:
Ironically, Helen Clark herself had identified the risk. Noting Labour’s losses in the provinces in the 2005 election, she declared to some colleagues that there would be no more “social engineering” in the third term. Georgina Beyer was pressed to withdraw a bill on transgender rights. But then came the “anti-smacking” bill, which to large numbers of people, including among Labour’s core vote, was social engineering writ large. Labour will have to do some hard thinking and hard work to repair the damage to its relationship with its core vote (p.52).
Tax, health, and law and order
In terms of other significant election issues in 2008, ‘Labour lost the spending versus tax argument. Clark had to concede tax cuts, and was on the back foot over health and law and order’ (p.51). James details how tax faded away as a major election issue:
In 2005 National promised large tax cuts and Labour large spending. After that election, organizers of unions of better-paid workers made it clear their people wanted tax cuts. By late 2007 even union organizers for low-paid trades were bringing the same story to the Labour policy table. Labour legislated a three-stage income tax cut programme, with the first cut in October 2008, just before the election. National promised bigger and faster tax cuts – but not much bigger, and not greatly faster, and with offset cuts in KiwiSaver. As a result, tax did not feature to nearly the same extent in the 2008 campaign as it had in 2005 (p.49).
Similarly, health was of no significant value to Labour in 2008. James comments:
In 2005 National scarcely mentioned health. It conceded Labour owned that argument. But by 2007 National’s focus groups were recording dissatisfaction…. In 2008 health was a National vote winner, or at least no longer a lock-up Labour issue. Given Helen Clark’s special interest in the portfolio, that was a telling comment on the reversal in public opinion (pp.50-51).
Instead it was law and order that dominated the campaign. Virtually all parties concentrated on showing how conservative they were on issues of crime and punishment, even if those involved did so disingenuously:
Worse for Labour was law and order. Helen Clark’s governments markedly toughened up the criminal and penal law, which greatly expanded the prison population to the point of serious overcrowding…. During the campaign National ran hardest on law and order of all topics. There was a statement nearly every day and numerous policies. Simon Power, though a liberal, was so busy creating the impression of the sheriff coming to town that he didn’t get round to issuing a policy on competition and regulation under his other – and arguably more important – portfolio, commerce (p.51).
John Key: the bland leading the bland
When Helen Clark talked of direction, she listed projects. She was managing director, not prophet. National did no better. It offered “fresh” early in 2008 and “bright future” for the campaign, on a refreshed blue background – apparently, marketing people say, a friendly blue compared with the unfriendly dark-royal blue that is National’s actual colour. (The parallel is BP’s change some years ago from dark green to friendlier green.) (p.55).
[Steven Joyce] declared before the election that National was “focusing on the issues”. But it was a soft focus, giving little for voters to get their teeth into – or to take offence at. In essence, John Key, too, ran on “trust”. The day before the election one of his senior MPs said to me: “We don’t really know him.” This is managerial government. Arguably, it is what revolution-weary, ideology-weary, debt-heavy households want…. It’s not exciting, or even “ambitious” – John Key’s favourite word. It is government by MBA. Well, after a time the managers get reshuffled (p.53).
National’s policy moderation is also dealt with by James:
[National adopted] Working for Families without change. Earlier intentions to de-index Working for Families qualifying thresholds from inflation, thus over time eroding it, were abandoned. That eliminated Labour’s potential to scare voters on that count and in case voters had banked the credits and were looking for more…. National systematically eliminated any differences which might be negatives as they had been in 2005 – in foreign affairs, in privatization, in deregulation, in benefits and superannuation, and in spending programmes. John Key’s blandness was a major factor in the campaign. At times he was the bland leading the bland. He claimed the centre in a way that Don Brash could not (p.50).
The new government and Parliament
Colin James is one of the few political commentators that seems to have a deep understanding of the National Party’s orientation to the Maori Party. The following quote, for example, encapsulates the growing symbiotic potentiality of the National and Maori parties:
the widespread belief in the National Party that its agreement with the Maori Party represents a “sea change” in Maori representation in Parliament. National argues that this arrangement might evolve into something approaching an alliance which could make good National’s weakness in the Maori electorates, illustrated by the very low National Party vote there and recognized by its retreat from fielding candidates. In essence, the Maori Party could be the National Party’s proxy in those electorates, enabling it to purloin Labour votes (pp.47-48).
Logically, as Labour’s vote slumped, the Greens should have lifted theirs. They did, but only by 1.5 per cent; Labour’s vote share slumped 7 per cent. Clearly, the Greens have some rethinking and repositioning ahead. There were glimmers, in a greater number of young people at their meetings, in a funkier website and in a striking billboard campaign which owed much to their switched-on young campaign manager, Gary Reeves. But they are short of rising-generation MPs in their ranks. And as the world struggles with financial and economic woes, there will be a smaller catchment for messages of apocalypse and messianic recovery (p.52).
As per usual, there’s lots in this Colin James piece to consider and learn from.
Table of contents
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
Overview of the
Overview of the Election
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 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: 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
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, Nigel (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.