Political strategy need not be an entirely fact-challenged zone.
1. Opinion profile of non-voters
As Mike Smith noted at The Standard, on RNZ Josie Pagani cited some research suggesting that 2011 non-voters have similar opinions about issues to centrist voters. I am sure that research exists, and equally sure it is not reliable. Most people who do not vote lie about that fact, because in New Zealand voting is generally seen as a socially desirable thing to do. This happens even on an anonymous survey like the New Zealand Election Study (NZES). In 2008, for example, a little over 20% of the enrolled population did not vote, but only about 6% of the NZES respondents reported not voting. This bias is likely to be even worse in a focus group situation, where non-voters are forced to look multiple strangers in the eye while admitting their perceived social faux pas. Which non-voters lie? We have no idea. This bias, I think, renders any focus group- or survey-based analysis of the profile of non-voters largely useless.
2. Ideology in New Zealand
Since 1996, the NZES has asked people to rate themselves ideologically on a scale from 0 (left) to 10 right). The results are public up to 2008, and have been pretty consistent. There is never an absolute majority of either left wingers or right wingers, usually not even close, and the proportion of people who say they are perfectly centrist (5 on the scale), is around 25-30%. That is a huge bloc of voters perched right in the middle. Ideology in New Zealand is a bell curve, and a steep one at that.
3. Labour and centrists
Given this distribution of voter ideologies, it does not take a statistician to figure out that the left needs to do well with centrist voters in order to win. Same for the right. And, when you look at the NZES figures, that is what you find. In the three MMP elections where Labour took office, the left scored its three best results with centrists. In the two elections with public data where Labour lost – 1996 and 2008 – it had its two worst results with centrists. The difference – best to worst – in that period is over ten points.
This suggests there is real benefit to the left in trying to win the support of people to the right of Labour and the left of National, and that this benefit cannot be gained any other way. Without those people, getting the left enough seats to govern becomes virtually impossible.
Of course, there are different ways to woo those folk. Labour can moderate its own policy, alter which policies it emphasizes in the political debate, try to alter voters’ perceptions of National, or try to convince centrists to change their issue opinions and even their ideology. The last strategy, of convincing voters they are flat out wrong, is a favorite among activists of all stripes, because it requires change by others but no compromise or change on their own part. Among the issues that that strategy, however, is that it is very difficult to pull off on a large scale and in a short timeframe.
4. Voters and welfare
So what do centrist voters want? One issue that has come up recently is welfare, with David Shearer giving a speech that included an anecdote about a person who was, officially, too sick to work but, in fact, not too sick to paint his roof. That, Shearer said, was not good enough.
In 2008, the last publicly available survey, the NZES asked voters about many issues, including welfare. 61% of centrists thought welfare “made people lazy” while only 18% disagreed. Even left-leaning voters were evenly split on this issue (39% agree vs 38% disagree). Moreover, clear majorities of both centrists and lefties also supported work for the dole. Again, this is unlikely to have changed much since 2008.
Of course, anyone expecting Labour to give in to every reactionary impulse among centrists and start proposing work for the dole schemes and a return to capital punishment (66% centrist support in 2008) is in for a long wait. But these results suggest that voters of all ideological hues want something less severe than that, too – parties should emphasize what they will do to make sure the welfare system is a hand up rather than a hand out, and is not open to abuse. That is what David Shearer did.
Would anyone actually suggest that Shearer was wrong on the facts? That our welfare system is never abused at all? Or that people who can work shouldn't work? Or that people who are capable of painting their own roof aren't probably also capable of, say, painting someone else’s roof? Shearer’s speech did not contain any policy change – Labour has always been in favour of getting people back into productive work as soon as is possible. Every party is. All Shearer did was emphasize an aspect of Labour’s policy, that Labour has previously glossed over. Josie Pagani said that, in her experience, Labour is seen as “the party for beneficiaries;” Shearer was reminding everyone that Labour supports people who pay taxes, too.