Sometimes the most interesting political parties provide the most boring and bland post-election self-analyses in post-election books – witness the latest Green and Maori party chapters – while the most boring parties can offer relatively interesting and insightful chapters. This is certainly the case with the chapter by Rob Eddy on United Future’s 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. Eddy writes candidly of the challenges and failures of this middle-of-the-road party, and concludes with a surprisingly honest and downbeat prediction about there being no future for United Future. [Read more below]
Campaign themes and policies
For 2008, Rob Eddy – who is Peter Dunne’s Chief of Staff – says that United Future ‘settled on four core themes or values’ to enhance the party’s ‘brand’, which could be summarized as 1) pro-family, 2) ‘common sense’ not ideological, 3) anti-nanny state, and 4) being statesman-like. In line with this, United Future campaigned on the normal moderate/conservative policies associated with the party. But there were two policies that stood out as being somewhat more radical than might be expected from United Future: 1) the rather rightwing policy of cutting the top personal tax rate and trust rate to 30%, and 2) the rather leftwing policy of re-introducing free tertiary education via ‘fully state-subsidised tertiary fees’ (p.107).
Campaign techniques and political finance
United Future’s campaign committee included ‘party president Denise Krum and Terry Levenberg, principal of Apropos Advertising, and Auckland-based agency engaged by United Future for brand and advertising development. The committee met face-to-face every four to six weeks from May 2008 and weekly in the last month of the campaign, with daily teleconference discussions during the last two weeks’ (p.106).
Details are given about the television advertising strategy that the campaign committee came up with:
Our advertising agency nevertheless persuaded the campaign committee of the need to have at least one major television ad. It was agreed that this should run on the Wednesday before polling day during the first commercial break in that evening’s peak viewership – the TV1 and TV3 news bulletins. This ran concurrently on both channels as a three-minute long “fireside chat” by Peter Dunne in which he articulated United Future’s key messages. Those insertions alone cost $46,000 (plus GST), in addition to which were production costs (p.111).
The party also placed a full page ad in the New Zealand Herald, advertising in community newspapers in the party’s top 15 electorates of 2005, and in outdoors and hunting publications. Hoardings were put up, which Eddy reflects on as being too small, which was ‘not helped by them being overly wordy and having elliptical slogans that were more about United Future’s values, rather than getting to the nub of the issue and simply asking for votes’ (p.111).
Money was obviously tight. There are frequent mentions in the chapter of the ‘parlous’ state of the party’s finances. Eddy also candidly admits that United Future is no longer a nationwide party, saying that United Future had ‘a party organizational infrastructure that was virtually non-existent outside Auckland and Ohariu’ (p.10). Not surprisingly, most of the party’s money came from the state: ‘We had the grand sum of $195,000 for the entire national and local campaigns. This included $103,000 (GST inclusive) of Electoral Commission broadcast funding’ (p.105).
Some might remember that Peter Dunne had been a supporter of Labour’s Electoral Finance Bill but that he suddenly did an about-turn on the final reading of the legislation. Not surprisingly, therefore, Eddy complains about the problems of ‘managing issues around compliance with the intrusive and administratively unmanageable Electoral Finance Act’ (p.106).
The campaign committee determined the following ‘electoral support constituencies’ for United Future were worth targetting:
In broad terms these were centrist, family-focused (particularly those with young families) and community-focused voters, the disability sector, outdoors (fishing and hunting) enthusiasts, and migrant groups, both established and recent’ (p.106).
The party also attempted to ‘cultivate the “grey vote”, a good percentage of whom we believed would defect from New Zealand First’ due to its political finance scandals (p.106).
The most significant part of United Future’s 2008 campaign was it’s switching of allegiances from Labour to National. From the chapter we find out that this decision was largely based on market research. Eddy says that ‘Peter Dunne commissioned a poll in early August 2008 to test the mood and his prospects’ in his Ohariu electorate (p.108):
we asked our pollster to ask a specific question of those respondents who had voted for Dunne in 2005 but who would not do so (or were considering not doing so) this election: what did he need to do to win back their support? The overwhelming response from these voters (and they numbered about 15 per cent of the polling sample) was a simple one – “align with National” (p.109).
Thus, United Future proved once again that it is the epitome of the modern electoral-professional political party – being ultra pragmatic, highly office-seeking, constantly evolving, determinedly centrist, and plotting its electoral maneuvers on the basis of market research rather than political and ideological principles.
Eddy says that ‘the decision was instrumental in helping Peter Dunne hold his Ohariu seat’ (p.111), but nonetheless, the shift of allegiances didn’t give United Future the national wide electoral boost it wanted. Eddy writes that, ‘We had hoped that this announcement would give United Future a much needed “circuit breaker” and boost the party’s election prospects, which up until that point were dim indeed’ (p.110).
Apparently, United Future ‘set a modest but achievable party vote target of 3.76 per cent’ (p.108). In the end, the party won only 0.9% - or ’50,000 votes fewer’ than in 2005.
Possibly the most interesting part of Rob Eddy’s chapter is the conclusion, in which he predicts a ‘tough road ahead’ for United Future:
For me the result has answered an important question which is central to the proposition “whither United Future?”, and that is: is there a place for a centrist, liberal party or parties in our now unique MMP political system? Despite the rebuilding work United Future will do over the next three years, I fear that the answer is probably “no, there isn’t”. That centrist territory appears, as it did under first-past-the-post, to be occupied by Labour and National (p.112).
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: 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.