Did the Labour Party lose the 2008 election simply due to a ‘benign dismissal’ by a public that wanted to give the other political team a go at running things? Labour MP Grant Robertson thinks so. Robertson, who is a former adviser to Helen Clark and now the MP for Wellington Central, writes about the reasons for Labour’s defeat in his chapter on the Labour campaign 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 briefly relays Robertson’s intelligent, but well-spun chapter, noting a few flaws. [Read more below]
Labour’s loss – a “benign dismissal”?
Grant Robertson argues that his party’s electoral loss was some kind of a ‘benign dismissal’ (p.76). What he means by this is that ‘‘in general terms the public were not terribly angry with the government. In fact, they liked the government: they thought it was competent and had done good things’ (p.76). He elaborates:
While the result represents a clear loss, I believe this was by no means a drubbing. This squares with my own experience on the campaign trail and with what I have heard from my colleagues. We did not encounter much in the way of hostility on the doorstep or in the factories or community groups (p.76).
As an alternative to the idea that people no longer liked the Labour Government, Robertson puts forward the ‘time for a change’ argument: ‘It was, simply, “time for a change” – not time for a big change so much as time for a change of scene’ (p.76). Robertson even seems to appreciate the electorate’s desire for change, saying it reflects ‘the Kiwi ethic of fairness writ large’ (p.79). He repeats Michael Cullen’s own justification for the party’s failure:
Michael Cullen described the view of some people as thinking that being in government was like a game of beach cricket where Helen had had the bat for a while, and it was now time for John to have a go (p.79).
So, says Robertson, ‘In the political game of beach cricket, the public felt it was only fair to give the other side a go’ (p.82). Of course there is some truth to this theory, especially if you accept – as Robertson perhaps does – that most of the public failed to detect significant political differences on offer from Labour and National. The two main parties have indeed become akin to two different interchangeable cricket teams that can be swapped over without the status quo being threatened.
In fact the main political divide between Labour and National in 2008 was their apparently different orientations towards so-called ‘nanny-state, social liberalism’. And here Robertson grasps this fact, and details how it worked against Labour:
When it came time to talk about negatives, more often than note the discussion turned to what could be described as accumulated grievances. It might have been the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act, or banning smoking in bars, or junk food in schools, or lightbulbs, or civil unions, but after nine years, issues that on their own may not normally change a vote had built up to a point where they were more than enough to tip the balance for some people’ (p.81).
Robertson also insightfully identifies the lackluster nature of the 2008 campaign, which meant that there was little real public enthusiasm for the politics on offer: ‘quite clearly the election lacked the polarising influence of a Don Brash-led National Party, or dramatic developments with the Exclusive Brethren, or a truly left-field policy position like the 2005 interest-free student loan scheme’ (p.79). Like National, Labour offered no significant or positive reasons to vote in its favour. It was a policy-lite election, with little prospect of changes in economic policy or public spending. Robertson notes in this regard that,
It also led to the peculiar moment at Helen Clark’s Wellington rally where her commitment that Labour would make no more spending promises was greeted by rapturous applause. This was the first time a commitment not to spend money has been greeted in this way in my time in the Labour Party! (p.80).
I held nearly 60 street-corner meetings, and 30 house meetings, and participated in a dozen meet-the-candidates events. My team and I knocked on more than 6000 doors and phone canvassed two or three nights a week for several months. We delivered 30,000 pieces of direct mail (some of it outside the election period). We handed out 20,000 flyers at community events, at markets and on the street. I visited dozens of schools, workplaces and community organisations (p.75).
Despite Robertson’s generally insightful and intelligent observations – combined, of course, with a lot of sophisticated spin – there are parts of the chapter that show why Labour was chucked out in 2008 and why the party is still in the doldrums. For instance, although Labour was widely seen as having an awful internet presense in 2008, Robertson seemed to have some sort of misplaced confidence in Labour’s poor attempt, saying:
The growing importance of the internet was recognized in Labour’s campaign, with the creation of a dedicated campaign website, including a daily campaign blog from Helen Clark. The party also made extensive use of YouTube and Facebook, with a number of spokespeople featuring (p.77).
He does, however, temper this by saying that ‘There is much to learn in this regard’. But a more important example is that Robertson is rather contemptuous of voters who voted for a non-mainstream party:
This was a strange campaign. Perhaps it is best summarized by the fact that the Bill and Ben Party got more than 13,000 votes. Is that how little some people think of the importance of their vote? (p.81).
Clearly Robertson doesn’t get the fact that it was the failure of his party – as well as the other mainstream parties – to convince the thousands of voters that forwent the ‘sensible’ options out of a sense of either protest or fun. A number of voters couldn’t stomach the Labour-National mainstream in 2008, and as Michael Stipe sings in the R.E.M. song,‘What’s the Frequency Kenneth?’, ‘To turn away in disgust is not the same as apathy’.
Further book details:
Preface - Stephen Levine and Nigel S. Roberts
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.