Brian Edwards Media

Random thoughts on why Labour did so poorly in the election


Josie Pagani, Labour’s candidate for Rangitiki in the last election and, incidentally, my researcher for two years on Top of the Morning, has penned an interesting opinion piece in today’s Herald  which the paper has headed “Workers lose faith in party with glum message”. Her theme is essentially that making people feel miserable about their lives is not a good way of getting them to vote for you. Helen Clark sometimes used the term ‘”shroud waving” to convey a similar message.

I think Josie has a point, though it’s difficult for an opposition Labour Party during an election to avoid talking about poverty, unemployment, kids going to school without breakfast, the minimum wage and the appalling and widening gap between rich and poor in this country.

Josie’s column led me to thinking of some other reasons why Labour did so poorly in the election. Some can be summarised in just a few words:

  • The extreme improbability of any political party in New Zealand being voted out after just one term in office;
  • The nation’s love affair with John Key, without doubt the greatest exponent of the photo opportunity and ‘skinetics’ in the history of New Zealand politics;
  • The relative lack of voter enthusiasm for Phil Goff;
  • Earthquakes, mining and shipping disasters which, in media terms, disadvantage those not in power and unable to influence events;
  • The Rugby World Cup, a convenient distraction for National shortly before the election;
  • The general euphoria that winning the Cup produced;
  • Widespread voter disengagement from politics, particularly on the Left.
  • The self-fulfilling nature of three  years of polls branding Key and National  sure-fire winners and Goff and Labour sure-fire losers.
  • Labour’s courage in advancing policies that made long-term economic sense, but were highly unattractive to voters in the short term: a capital gains tax and raising the age of eligibility for the pension.   

I got to know, like and respect Phil Goff during the six months or so before the election. I’d written about him several times on this site. If he’d read them, he would not have found much that was cheering in those posts. I gave him little chance of winning the election. My arguments were essentially that he had been around too long, that defeating Key in his first term as Prime Minister was a virtual impossibility and that he was wooden on television.

As it turned out, Goff won one of the three televised debates hands down and, in my submission, had an honourable draw in the other two. But it was simply too late. I suspect that if Goff had won all three debates hands down, the outcome would have been no different. The country wasn’t listening.  

Nor was Goff helped by the idiotic decision of Labour’s campaign team not to have a Party launch and not to feature the Party Leader on any of their election billboards. The only possible interpretation that could be placed on this hare-brained scheme was that Labour was embarrassed by Goff and wanted him kept in the background. And that is precisely the interpretation that the media, political commentators and, I suspect, voters placed on it.

It was certainly the interpretation which I placed on it and I branded Labour’s campaign team “idiots” on the Jim Mora programme. Some days later I received an irate call from a very senior member of that team who told me that a lot of people in the Party were very angry about my remarks and suggested that I really ought to pull my woolly head in. The conversation ended amicably enough, but I have since found no reason to change my view of this particular ‘strategy’ and still think they were idiots, albeit well-meaning. I don’t know and haven’t asked whether Phil was himself party to this decision but, whether he was or not, it was an appalling misjudgement that undoubtedly damaged him at the worst possible moment in the campaign.

Another serious misjudgement was Labour’s conviction that their campaign ace-in-the-hole was their opposition to the sale of state assets. That conviction was largely fuelled by the feedback they were getting from focus group research. My own view of this style of opinion gathering is that it is about as reliable as consulting the entrails of chickens. The sample size is too small and the scope for subjective interpretation too large. But Labour leaders seem dazzled by what they see as highly reliable scientific evidence, and questioning the reliability of focus group information is seen as akin to heresy.

If you ask a dozen New Zealanders in a room whether they are opposed to the sale of our high-performing SOEs, a clear majority will naturally say that they are. But their opposition will be intellectual rather than visceral, almost a case of what they think they ought to believe as good Kiwis, rather than something they feel in their guts or would change their vote for. So the focus group and other research that showed that most New Zealanders didn’t want state assets sold was probably statistically correct. What it didn’t record was that this was the head speaking, not the heart.

Finally, Phil was probably not helped by Helen’s dramatic departure from the scene or by her ordination of him as Labour’s new leader. Having served a parliamentary apprenticeship only three years short of hers, he might just have appreciated another three or six months to get his bearings and turn to her for advice. But it was probably never on the cards. On numerous occasions Helen said to me or Judy that being Leader of the Opposition was the worst job in the world. No way was she going back to that.

It’s David Shearer’s turn now. He should probably take note of one major reason why Josie Pagani thinks Labour lost so much support:

“We were seen as looking backwards, not forwards. We didn’t sound aspirational, we sounded miserable. We were turning up on people’s doorsteps telling them their lives were gloomy. And anyone who has ever been poor knows the last thing you want is someone telling you your life is crap.”

“There was one age-old Labour message that always got me in the front door for a cup of tea and a chat – ‘Labour will create jobs. We’ve got a plan to do it. Just give us the mandate to get started.’”

Makes sense to me.

, , , ,


  1. It was their social engineering for me. Namely: Civil union bill, prostitute reform bill and anti-smacking bill. Then they came out to say that gay couples would be able to adopt if they were elected. Yeah right!

  2. 2

    I have to agree with almost all your points.
    It was going to be a difficult to impossible for Labour to win and it was not helped by the appearance that senior Labour MPs were more interested in positioning themselves for after the election than winning the thing
    I do disagree that Phill Goff drew two of the debates, the lasting memory of the call to “show us the money” and not be able too slammed the gate on Labour. The team must of anticipated the question, so why no answer
    Phill did start to shine towards the end but too late

  3. Good, honest, and precise analysis, Brian. My apologies for ever doubting the integrity of your opinions.

    Also Labour’s policies such as no gst on fruit and vege were rightly seen as desperate attempts at populism.

    Unfortunately, your correct advice that Goff’s all-to-quick accession to the leadership does not augur well for Shearer. Both Shearer and Goff are good men. Regrettably events beyond Shearer’s control may see him consigned to the same category that befell Jack Marshall, Bill Rowling, and Geoffrey Palmer.

    But three years until the next election is an eternity. Going on past trends and cycles, National and Key will have a much tougher job on their hands in 2014. Also Labour, and their natural coalition partners the Greens, account for about 37% of the electoral vote combined.

    That is a useful place to start – a much better than place compared to National when they were slaughtered in 2002. Suddenly they came back under Don Brash (a most unlikely politician) starting with the scurrilous Orewa speech to nearly pull off a win three year later.

  4. I always thought the medias vocal judgement that National was a dead cert gave an imminent feeling of hopelessness to Labour’s more fickle supporters.The Maori Party’s spin on asset sales(sell them to us )did little for Labour’s campaign.I was once a Labour supporter but have drifted to the green side of things.Its where I see a better future for us all.

  5. I don’t blame Helen Clark for moving on straight after her defeat in 2008. She was rejected by the ‘hard working middle classes’ and a ‘reality show’ mainstream media. The political tide was deemed to have turned and gone out on the incumbent and the answer was promoted to vote National for a ‘brighter future’.

    Yeah right!

    The reality is Key and National only just scraped in last November and are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. The media has already announced that the political tide is at its peak for National and can now only go out. The speed of the receding tide will be governed by the usual influences of events accompanied by mainstream media influence.

    National has no option but to go full steam ahead with its ideology driven crony-ism policies such as asset sales and punitive welfare reform. Labour therefore has a good chance of becoming the Govt next election as that government electing floating voter section of the middle classes are already beginning to chatter.

    Keys popularity as you say appears only skin deep and bound to wither. Over the next term Shearer will look like a saint by comparison and along with the rest of the left bloc should sweep to power.

    Even though Labour slipped badly in party support Phil Goff, but for a couple of percent, could have become PM. That is why the right wing cheerleaders gloating of post election 2008 is deafening by its absence post November 2011.

    Perverse as it may seem the prospect of witnessing Nationals pathetic self serving crony-ism driven ideological policies being slowly flayed to political death makes this Clayton’s summer somewhat more bearable.

  6. A factor I think is missing from this analysis was the fact the Greens started campaigning three years earlier than Labour. Norman became the natural spokesperson for almost every issue when the media needed to show opposition to the Government. He took the space and air-time that opposition leaders need to show voters they’re engaged, competent and relevant. Goff should have been that man if he was to be a genuine contender to Key.

    I thought the Labour opening broadcast was great. It said to me that there was a reinvigorated team backing Goff who had values rooted in our past that we’re relevant today. The nostalgia tugged heart strings in contrast to National’s one man band. If Goff wasn’t going to be out front in a presidential-style race he needed that team to swing in behind him during the campaign and say it was all against one. King was anonymous, Horomia, Jones, Mallard, Moroney and Parker, Dalziel and all those experienced campaigners were all in the background and never in the media. Ardern gets points for cut through and to me Cunliffe made sense and got air time early on prior to the Press debate.

    People may have warmed to Goff over the campaign as they got to know him, but his team of senior colleagues were like a scoop of ghost chips watching him make all the running.

    How they didn’t make more inroads on what they’d bring to the table on areas like education and job growth can only be put down to the point you made around their belief that asset sales would be a king hit.

    Surely they had better alternatives for creating jobs than the cycleway. Shame the public never really got to hear and believe in the detail.

  7. Seems to me, Brian, that between you, Josie and Kat, you’ve hit most of the nails on the head. Most, but not all. I’m sure there were many more like me, who for the first time in their lives voted other than Labour because they felt it was too soon for Labour to return. A Labour government elected last November would have lasted only one term. Voters like me wanted to see a government led by a Labour Party with a whole new persona, and the only way to make that happen was to give them some tough love.

    I believe the tide is going to turn against Key and National in the next three years as their lily-livered approach to decision-making combines with increasingly tough economic conditions. It would have turned against Labour for the latter reason alone.

    On the matter of policy, I was amazed that Labour didn’t make more of their plan to make the first $5,000 of personal income free of tax. The extra dollars this policy would have given to lower income people and NZ Superannuitants was significant and should have been explained to them loudly and clearly. In the haste to decry asset sales, which meant little to many or most of those same folk, it was hardly mentioned during the campaign. What a waste of a winning policy plank!

  8. I give John Key another 12 months of unfetterd popularity before his star starts to crash and burn. Thetrouble with unfettered p[opularity is that it turns in to unfettered loathing. Labour does need to improve, but to think that Nationals star is going to continue to burn bright is dreaming. They may get a 3rd term but don’t bet on it. You can only flog a dead horse (see striping assets) for so long before people become dissatisfied. There is no substance to John Key and eventually he will become a liability. I actually et the impression the he (jk) is becoming bored with being pm and i suspect he will bale before the end of this term.

  9. Children, children; your attention, please.
    Do you see a Prime Minister-in-waiting amongst that lot?
    What you do see, is a grinning impresario, leading a dress rehearsal for the now-striking Ports of Auckland unionists, right?

    If there was one picture that sums up the utter hopelessness of Labour’s campaign to win the voters, that would be my pick.

  10. I found it interesting that my two daughters, aged 25 and 22 voted for the Greens.

    They are young women with a strong social conscience and in another age (my own) would have, with out question, voted for Labour.

    They simply could not connect with Labour. Goff to them was some kind of institionalised irrelevant relic that they could not relate to.

    They found Labour’s policies to be incomprehensible and of little value to them as young people making their way in the world.

    Under Shearer Labour should be better at presenting itself as a 21st Century party and be able to connect more easily with 21st Century voters.

    But to do this, Labour, in my opinion needs to seriously restructure itself so that it enables and encourgaes a ‘broad church’ of voters to participate meaningfully within it rather than, at present, only allowing narrow sector interest groups, such as unions, to call the shots.

  11. All true Brian. It is my belief, however, that even if Labour had run the most incredible campaign and Goff had walked all over Key in the debates, they still would have lost. After 9 years in power and National doing enough, it was going to be almost impossible for Labour to win. The issue for Labour over the next three years will be whether they can win back the confidence of current disaffected Labour supporters – it is a very crowded opposition out there!

  12. There seems to be a lot of wishful thinking here. It is by no means certain that JK is going to be revealed as having no substance. It is by no means certain that the Labour Party will out-perform National in the next election. I am sure their electoral standing will improve but the best that can be hoped for is a Rag, Tag and Bobtail coalition probably involving NZ First. However it would not surprise me to see a third term National Government especially if ACT manages to rejuvenate itself.

    I am far from convinced that Shearer has what it takes to become the next PM. He certainly has a lot of learning and growing to do. I await with interest his performance against JK in parliament.

    As regards the reasons for Labour losing I suspect that those who change their vote with same freedom as which they change their underwear, have not yet forgotten the reasons why they were unhappy with Labour. The Labour Party never gave any convincing reasons for why these floating voters should switch their allegiance.

    If you could all take of your red tinted glasses for the moment, you would recognise that at best the Labour campaign was boring and at worst, a shambles, with Goff at times giving the impression that he did not understand his own policies.

    Judging from the responses, those who have commented are committed supporters of a particular party, mostly Labour. The problem is that you are not the ones who win elections. It is the 10/15% or so who call themselves ‘swinging voters’. They are the voters Labour has to convince. Labour also needs to recapture the disillusioned who switched to the Green Party. I am far from convinced that the current Labour Party has that ability

  13. Labour lost because it was unable to admit that Clark’s “legacy” was a liability, not an asset.
    (Indeed, some of us were amazed Labour won the last election that it did win. The country simply didn’t move quickly enough that time).

  14. Labour would have lost the November election even if Barrack Obamas brother/sister was the leader. ( Before you say anything, I nkow he was an only child stupid). Middle New Zealand swing voters had no reason to vote Labour as they were the same people who were put off by the whacky, nanny state policies of the green party as a coalition partner in the last Labour government. Josie Paggani definitely presented some thought provoking ideas. Labour does need to appeal to middle income New Zealanders who are not farmers, don’t own baches at Omaha Beach or Hawaii, who work hard, are honest law abiding citizens who don’t clog up the court system; people who have to assist their children financially and don’t qualify for assistance from study link.

  15. Social engineering and free market capitalism – Labour’s Achilles heels. You can’t win elections when you’re:

    1) p*ssing off half the electorate by trying to reshape ‘family’ to mean any combo of people (3 guys and 2 women, why not says Labour?)

    2) p*ssing off the other half of the electorate by continuing – and never apologising for – the same Roger Douglas economic lies. Labour won’t sell our state assets, but they will give us PPPs, which are privatisation by stealth.

    Sheesh, Labour could give us some credit for intelligence. We won’t vote for a moribund party of timeserving lickspittles and toadies who want to screw us in the same way National do, but pretend to be our mates while they’re shafting us.

    My two cents. Not that Labour care…

  16. I think that the reasons given above are valid. It was difficult to see National not winning last year.

    But one of Josie’s comments I strongly disgree with. She says:

    “It’s not just about dividing the economic pie fairly, it’s about increasing the size of the pie so everyone can get their piece.”

    That is the sort of thing that we hear from National. It sounds suspicioulsy like Josie believes in the trickle down theory. If we create enough wealth, workers might benefit somehow. She clearly doesn’t realise that where there have been productivity gains, wages have been slow to follow.

    I also note that Josie makes absolutely no reference to Labour’s social conscience. Does she believe that Labour should stay silent when someone is fighting for justice, when someone has been badly treated by the State? It appears so. I am not surprised that many people decided not to vote. The choices they were faced with were not great.

    BE: “That is the sort of thing that we hear from National. It sounds suspicioulsy like Josie believes in the trickle down theory. If we create enough wealth, workers might benefit somehow. She clearly doesn’t realise that where there have been productivity gains, wages have been slow to follow.”

    Nothing wrong with increasing the national wealth (the pie) providing we follow Marx’s dictum in dividing it up: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

  17. Labour’s losing was nothing to do with the world cup, disasters or “self fulfilling” polls. (As if polls decide people’s opinions, not the other way around.)

    Key is no master at public relations, and has no real charisma, but he does understand that people are tired of extreme politics from both ends and presented himself and his party as close to the centre, while Labour appeared dominated by teachers, unions, gays and beneficiaries, which put off many “average” voters.

    It wasn’t bad marketing, the customers bought the alternative product not because of the packaging or the TV ads, but because they’ve been using it for a while and it seems to work better.

  18. A very thoughtful piece Brian. It was hard not to ‘sound miserable’ but the real issues facing this country are ones some don’t want to face at present. Poverty, particularly in families with children is a serious problem but dismissed by Key and co as a definitional issue. Families find it hard to survive on definitions!! We put forward a comprehensive policy for all young children, putting them at the centre of our social policy. It included elimination of child poverty, early support for families and parental leave to allow parents to spend longer with their young babies. It actually cost us votes. It will take more than one election to finally convince people that the future does rest with well nourished,well loved and well educated children. I recall it took 3 elections before NZers voted to dump the Employment Contracts Act , a policy we campaigned on in those 3 elections. It is time to look forward. I’m keen to talk about how we can put in place policies that give Kiwi hope and a long term future.

  19. “We put forward a comprehensive policy for (the) elimination of child poverty…It actually cost us votes.”

    Indeed it did, Annette. Probably because you had 9 unbroken years in which to do it, and like people who promise to abolish death or gravity, the electorate figured you either didn’t have the ability, or the credibility to perform the task.

  20. Feel a bit, for Goff, taking all the rap for Labour’s hammering at the polls. I mean, no poster’s made mention of the ugliness of the Helen Clark Years, where the memory’s still very raw; it was never going to be expunged in 3 years.

    Lookee here, a greenhorn with less than a full term as a parliamentarian, who distinguishes himself in the House by…well, by not doing anything notable at all, assumes the leadership of the party. What the hell does that tell you?
    It tells me, that the depth of their talent pool can be compared to that of a rain puddle. Jump into it and you’d be hard pressed to make a splash.

    Hope, the Labourites are wrapped up snug-and-warm in their mock mink coats and synthetic fur caps, because they need to brace themselves for a long and difficult nuclear winter. If they don’t reinvent themselves.

    Oh, Annette, under Labour, the nation has had the worst Police Commissioners, ever.

  21. People who voted National kept telling me “The other alternatives are so bad that I suppose I have to vote National.” And when quized on the use of the word “alternative”, they were usually talking about the media’s beige portrayal of Phil Goff.

  22. @ annette king..

    despite yr claims to have policies to end poverty..

    ..speaking as one from that underclass..

    (..the dpb-poverty-trap…)

    ..i hafta say you were actually offering very little… the sense of the sum-return to that underclass..

    ..a few bucks off fruit and veg…

    ..first five grand tax free..(and hardly being for all..)..being brought in over three years would have meant how much financial relief for that underclass year of labour in office..?

    ..see what i mean..?

    ..and your much-vaunted extending the tax credit to the poorest families..?

    …by 2018..?..(!)

    ..once again..that question of how much relief in that first yr under a labour govt..?

    ..see what i mean..?

    ..when you add it all up..

    ..there is/was much jaw-flapping … but no real promise/prospect of ending poverty/releasing the poverty-traps..

    ..if i have missed something that paints those labour (what i see as non-)promises in a better light..

    ..please let me know..

    ..but as far as i cd see…

    ..for the poorest-families/the underclass.. real/financial-terms..

    ..labour was just offering no real change..

    ..just chump-change..


  23. @anette king..

    and while we are all speaking in such calm/reasoned tones..

    i wd really appreciate an explanation from you of why for nine long years..

    ..your administration..

    ..just turned your backs on the poorest/worst-off..?

    ..what exactly was the institutional-thinking/mindframe on/around that..?

    ..i studied political-science/am a political-junkie..

    ..and aside from being pissed about that dereliction of what i see as your political-duties…..

    ..i also have an intellectual-curiousity as to the mechanics of that whole volte-face on labours’ (traditional) role..

    i mean..was there even debate/concern internally..? yr continuing growing/ignoring of the underclass..?


  24. and of course with that financial-poverty..

    ..comes the poverty of opportunity..

    ..’cos when you are poor.. can’t afford to walk out the door..


  25. Merv, were you in NZ during the better part of the 1990’s? Were you in NZ during the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s? Compared to the Muldoon, Bolger and Shipley years the Clark years were golden.

    Argue the point if you must but Key the money launderer was head hunted by the Slater senior, and helicoptered in as the real deal to lead the Nats to power. Brash was just used like a piece of litmus paper. True to form for the National party.

    Labour will be back, and sooner than some think.

  26. Kat, some see things as golden, others see them as guilt :)

  27. @ annette king..

    “..I’m keen to talk about how we can put in place policies that give Kiwi hope and a long term future..”

    given the resounding/tumbleweed-ridden silence..

    ..i guess that statement is pure rhetoric..

    ..nothing more..

    ..(surely a problem that is endemic for labour..that one..?

    ..just all mouth and trousers..?..)


  28. I belive people voted against Labour rather than for National. Some of their policeies scared me. For example, a capital gains tax on productive enterprises, while leaving out unproductive assets like family homes, artworks etc. T
    Also the threat of extending working for families to beneficiaries.

  29. There is no such thing as ‘child poverty’ because children don’t have money, they have parents.
    We never seem to have the guts to target the real issues.