Friday, 7 November 2008

This week's other big election

There’s another general election going on this week. My home country, New Zealand, goes to the polls tomorrow, Saturday, November 8.

There could well be a change of government. Labour’s Helen Clark has been prime minister for a full nine years. That’s three parliamentary terms, a very long time in Kiwi politics. On only one occasion since World War II has the New Zealand public given any government a fourth chance. The last three years have been tough, as economic confidence has waned and the public mood has soured. [see here, and here] The opposition National Party has worked at seeming more centre than right and got themselves an attractive, moderate new leader, John Key. [For more details, see here] The Nats have been streets ahead in the public opinion polls for more than two years.

Yet Helen Clark and Labour could still, just, hang on. New Zealand uses the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system to choose its 121-member parliament. This is similar to the voting system used for the Scottish Parliament. All parties can win a number of seats in proportion to their share of the total (party) vote, so long as they win one or more constituency seats and/or more than five per cent of the total (party) vote. Current polls show that neither Labour nor National can win an outright majority, on their own. Both will need the support of minor and micro parties.

If they do well enough on Saturday, Labour could combine with the Progressives (current coalition partners), the Greens (who support the government on confidence issues) and, possibly, the Maori Party, and have enough seats to form a government. Since 2005, Labour has partly relied on NZ First, a populist, poujadist party whose support based is skewed towards older voters, but they seem unlikely to clear the 5 per cent hurdle this time. (For a more detailed guide to the system and this year’s arithmetic, click here.)

But the latest poll (and this one, just in) suggests that National and its allies ACT, a boutique party for market liberals, and the centrist United Future, should win a small but workable majority. Key may not need to deal with the Maori Party, but it will be tight. For more analysis of the polls, see here. For Jafapete’s prediction, see here.

A few thoughts from afar on how the parties have marketed themselves. Labour’s election policies (no, they are not a “manifesto”) are true to that party’s dominant social liberal philosophy. Helen Clark has described her personal political outlook, for a fairer New Zealand that leads the world on climate change (click here) . All of that would appeal to most UK Liberal Democrats.

Her campaign narrative is something different again. Labour has tried to make the election a question of “trust”. That’s partly about whose “values” line up with most New Zealanders’ and their claims that National has a secret, extremist agenda. [Click here for Labour’s “trust” tv spot] Put it’s mostly about Helen Clark’s leadership. Even after all these years, her strength and her competence are not in doubt and she is more popular than the party. Hence Labour’s campaign slogan, “strong, proven leadership”. Hence their efforts to stress her experience and consistency, and to slam John Key as a shallow flip flopper. [Here are Labour’s anti-Key spots on Iraq and climate change]. Hence their efforts to show that, with hardtimes looming, Helen Clark and not John Key the former international forex dealer, relates better to ordinary women and families. [see “Mary”, here.] These are all heuristics – mental shortcuts to help voters frame the issues. And it has partly worked – “trust” is an election issue. She has been out in front again as preferred PM.

National’s campaign narrative is easy to predict – that it’s time for a change. So they slam Labour’s record on law and order, education and health. Untainted by the last National government, coming from the post- baby boom generation, Key promises a “fresh” approach and tries to embody his narrative by running an energetic campaign. National’s slogan is “choose a brighter future”. This reflects the brand that the Nats are trying to build for themselves. Using Stephen Denning’s framework, they have tried to reinforce the case for change with promises to secure the future, for example in infrastructure, telecommunications, science and education. But they would not overturn much that Labour has put in place. The middle of the road Key embodies safety and reassurance.

“Securing the future” hasn’t worked all that well, as this article by the respected pundit Colin James says.

[Otago University’s] Phil Harris contrasts Labour's consistency in attacking Key as a new boy, not yet qualified to govern and vacillating on policy, with National's lack of consistency and purpose. "I have been surprised, given the resources National has, how amateurish it has been. There is not enough consistency and clarity of message." So, he says, the building-for-the-future line is not getting through.

Yet it seems that National’s basic “change the government” message has got through. Maybe the campaign made no real difference; with the public wanting something new, all National had to do was look safe. And Key has at least held his own against Helen Clark. Click here for the latest preferred prime minister poll.

A few words on the minor parties’ campaign narratives. During the campaign, the Greens have reached as high as 11 per cent in some polls. The latest polls suggest that they could win anything between 6 and 10 per cent, or between 8 and 12 seats. They had 6 in the last parliament and have gained support mostly at Labour’s expense. They have had the best campaign. The Greens have plenty of policies, on energy efficiency, waste control, “cleaning up politics” and more. Their campaign narrative is straightforward – elect more Green MPs and, as part of a Labur-led government, we can save the planet. This time, the Greens have concentrated on projecting the emotive dimension of their issues and values, to help broaden the brand. Check out this ad in particular for an astute of heuristics and symbols – imagining the future, making the party’s policies and narrative very personal.

Some Liberal Democrats may recognise ACT’s campaign narrative, if not their policies. With a change of government in the offing, they offer voters the chance to “be the difference”. The message is, use your party vote to elect more ACT MPs and they will be able to “ensure that the next National Government makes a difference”, as opposed to simply having new faces around the cabinet table. ACT promise to deliver very specific policy outcomes to their supporters. The red meat includes “zero tolerance for crime”, “three strikes and you’re out” “sensible sentencing” and “the emissions trading scheme will be dog tucker”. Assuming their leader holds his blue-ribbon constituency seat, they could have between 4 and 6 seats, on current polling. They had 2 before the election.

Other Liberal Democrats or, more likely, those involved in the Liberal Party during David Steel’s time, will be more familiar with United Future’s narrative. Click here to see their leader, Peter Dunne, explain “why you can trust us to keep the next government honest”. He pledges to work “in the interests of society as a whole” and to reject “ideological solutions”; to stand up for the “silent majority” of New Zealand families so that the “the loudest voices” from the ideological extremes do not dominate.

But United Future, on course to win 2 seats (the same as last time), is now committed to supporting a National-led government, having helped sustain Helen Clark for the last two terms. And National is more centrist than it has been for years. How can you make a moderate party more moderate? That’s where Dunne’s narrative really kicks in. He reminds voters that they can “decide what shape and form the new National-led government will take”, by giving one or other of National’s allies more sway. Dunne frames the choice as beween “a centre-right, rather than an extreme right, government”, saying that voters can have his party’s “brains” or ACT’s “jackboot” as the fulcrum of politics.

"A strong UnitedFuture presence . . . will provide a centrist moderating influence and draw National to a more compassionate middle course that will represent all New Zealanders.”

Oh, the joys of proportional voting systems.


Costigan Quist said...

Thanks Neil - reminded me how embarrassing it is that I really know very little about politics in about 95% of countries around the world.

And I learnt a new word: poujadist. Just got to find an opportunity to slip it into conversation in the pub now.

Neil Stockley said...

Yes, it's a good one, isn't it?


Will said...

Really interesting insight into how our politics could be different with a different system - especially interesting to see different wings of the UK Liberal Democrats could support at least 4 of the parties!