Of six by-elections since 2008, only one, Mt Albert, looks anything like Christchurch East in the scale of the Labour result. 

It's no coincidence those two seats had similar results: They were planned and run on the same organisational template. None of the other by-elections were.

When you look at election campaigns, you can always tell the difference between the old pros and the amateurs. The amateurs usually talk about  messaging strategy and images. The pros pay most attention to the nuts and bolts: How many people were working in the campaign? How many signs did they put up? How much paper did they deliver? How many voters did they reach?

Labour's win in the Christchurch East by-election shows why this is important.

Labour won by a large margin because it organised superbly. The organisational lesson could not be clearer.

Poto Williams won 8119 of the 13,318 votes counted on election night, only a thousand fewer than the 9100 party votes Labour won in 2011.

In the by-election, National didn't turn out its 2011 vote. It earned the support of 7000 fewer people than voted for Aaron Gilmore three years ago, and ten thousand fewer than gave National their party vote in 2011.

Turn-out in by-elections is usually much lower than in general elections. No surprise - there is less at stake and less public attention.

Total votes cast in Ikaroa-Rawhiti, Te Tai Tokerau, Mt Albert and Mana were roughly two-thirds of the 2011 general election total vote (down from 18k to 11k, from 19k to 12k, from 32k to 21k and from 35k to 23k respectively.) In Botany, total votes cast in the by-election were only 53% of those cast in the general election. 

In Christchurch East, only 46% of 2011 general election votes were cast in the buy-election. That’s still a respectable turn out for a by-election. And even if you compare Poto Williams' 8000-odd votes to Liane Dalziel's 15,000 in 2011, she has strongly outperformed.

This shows that, while turn-out in by-elections drops, Labour was so successful because it managed to organise most of its vote to the polls.

Of six by-elections since 2008, only one, Mt Albert, looks anything like Christchurch East in the scale of the Labour result. 

It's no coincidence those two seats had similar results: They were planned and run on the same organisational template. None of the other by-elections were.

The template is called Organise To Win. The basics of it were developed by Jim Anderton for Labour in the 80s, adapted by the Alliance in a series of strong by-election campaigns in the 90s, and practiced ruthlessly in Wigram for years. My husband used it in Mt Albert in 2009, and Jim again rolled it out this weekend.

It's a simple template, but not an easy one; it requires a compelling local reason for the campaign and an overwhelming mobilisation on the ground. It includes a house-by-house electorate canvass, which is then used to make repeated calls on election day to supporters who have not yet voted.

The system requires hundreds of election day workers, and armies over weeks and months before-hand.

I’ve worked on campaigns with Jim, and if he asks you how Mrs Brown at number 27 High Street votes, you better have an answer.

Since Labour’s loss in 2008 I’ve sat in many local branch meetings when Jim’s Organising to Win template is discussed. Members are quick to say ‘we’re already doing this, we don’t need the template’. But they’re wrong. Because it's deceptively simple, most branches think they're following it. They're not.

It’s based on the fact that you can’t win an election by sitting in front of a computer, as if blogs, tweets and Facebook posts would boost the turnout. Those tools can all help to find potential voters, activists and donors, but you still need to mobilise a real and overwhelming presence on the ground - especially in solid Labour and marginal National seats.

Neither can you win elections by good media coverage alone.

To get your vote out on election day, you have to know where your voters are, which means long before election day, you have to knock on every door and find them. 

It’s not rocket science. It is hard work.

No one can run a campaign like that in every seat, but replicating the Christchurch East effort across about half of electorates requires around 15,000 activists across New Zealand on election day - and half to two thirds of those putting in weeks before hand, often virtually full-time. This amounts to mobilising about 2 per cent of the people Labour expects to vote for it.

There’s one other key to success. A decent candidate, and Poto was an outstanding performer who won the hearts of voters. Candidates matter even in seats where you’re only chasing the party vote. It’s a mistake for Labour to run two different campaigns - candidate campaigns in safe or marginal seats, and a party vote campaign everywhere else. Voters will give you their party vote if they like the local candidate and the message.

In 2011 the popular Stuart Nash stood in the National seat of Napier, and achieved the largest reduction in National’s majority of any electorate. Good candidates matter.

After Mt Albert, Labour failed to build the organisational capability nationally that it had proved in the by-election. Christchurch East has again demonstrated the system works. Building it should be the top party priority.

 

 

Comments (5)

by Alan Johnstone on December 02, 2013
Alan Johnstone

Very true, the GOTV operation is critical. Obama's two victories can be attributed to ground game, as can Labour's 2005 win here. 

Labour lost in 2011 because it's core vote didn't turn out in heartland labour seats, turn out was very poor.

I think the key is to bring people in en mass from other already organisaed groups such as unions to act as foot soliders. You need to positive "change" message to sell them though.

National are very beatable if Labour can fix it's ground game in the cities were there is high voter density and a good return on dollars spent. There's very little votes in social media compared to retirement homes and school gates.

by Andrew Geddis on December 02, 2013
Andrew Geddis

In 2011 the popular Stuart Nash stood in the National seat of Napier, and achieved the largest reduction in National’s majority of any electorate. Good candidates matter.

In 2008, National received 16,772 party votes in Napier, while Labour received 12,621.

In 2011, National received 16,538 party votes in Napier, while Labour received 9,921.

So with Stuart Nash as the candidate, Labour got 21.4% fewer party votes in Napier (compared to an overall fall of 20.6% across the whole of New Zealand).

Yes, Stuart Nash cut Chris Tremain's electorate vote majority by a lot. But even if he had won the seat, it wouldn't have helped Labour at all.

by Alan Johnstone on December 02, 2013
Alan Johnstone

The last two elections have been really interesting, Nationals vote count in both was virtually identical at 1.05m.

In crude terms the Labour vote fell by 177,000, 80,000 of that went to the Greens, just under 100,000 people stayed home. Recovering those 80,000 votes from the Greens doesn't really do much good for Labour, it's internal tranference.

580,000 people didn't vote. That's double what the Greens got. There is very little direct transference of voters between the two blocs.

Whoever mines this group wins, looking at turnout stats, these voters exist primarily in labour voting areas and the Maori seats. I'd suggest that the right wing bloc maxes out at around 1.1m - 1.2m potential voters, the left has more potential voters but marshalls them less efficently.

by Josie Pagani on December 02, 2013
Josie Pagani

"I think the key is to bring people in en mass from other already organisaed groups such as unions to act as foot soliders. You need to positive "change" message to sell them though"

I agree Alan - use existing groups, and marshall communities of interest or sector groups (young Labour for example) and send them around the country like SAS forces, to get the vote out in marginal and safe seats.

by william blake on December 02, 2013
william blake

Not to denigrate the hard work done in the electorate but I wonder how much the eartquake trauma and the National governments response to it has affected the vote.

It was said that this by election would not be a litmus for David Cunliffe but I wonder if it does test the acid the National have put on the electorate by the percieved soft pedalling on the insurance companies etc. etc. and can this attitude  be extrapolated to the rest of the country and the next general election. 

The National party may loose by a landslide.

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