With apologies and props to Danyl

Some folk within Labour wonder why they are getting no traction with the public at the moment. The graphs below tell a big part of the story.

In January and February, half of Phil Goff’s newspaper coverage was about “policy”. Remember policy? It is the stuff that affects the rest of us. Labour released one large proposal about tax during that period, and made other, smaller commitments as well. During that time, Labour held its own in the polls – Pundit’s poll of polls showed no movement in the National-Labour gap.

From March on, however, Phil Goff has had almost no media coverage about policy. Instead, the focus has been on various forms on ructions within Labour itself. Who is the spokesperson for this and that? How smiley were the front bench after their crisis meeting in Dunedin? How many gays are in a gaggle? What was the deal with Darren Hughes and that young person, and what was the deal with Phil Goff finding out the deal about Darren Hughes and that young person, and what was the deal with Andrew Little talking to Phil Goff about finding out the deal…? None of this stuff affects the rest of us directly. And none of it reflected well on Labour.

Of course, Phil Goff could not control some of these events.

But Labour could have kept on talking about policy anyway. If it had released its proposals on how to fix our schools or bring down the cost of living or protect the environment, they would have been covered. Labour made no such large-scale announcements. Since March. In an election year. When down 15 to 20 points.

They should have. During this later period, the National-Labour gap in our poll of polls has grown by almost 2.5%.

To be sure, there is a steady stream of criticism of the government’s policies coming from Labour MPs, and it is good that they are doing that. But that kind of empty rhetoric is never going to attract much attention. It is just what the opposition does.

And the increasing tendency to target small amounts of expenditure specific to John Key and other Ministers is altogether unhelpful. Maybe Labour could attract some fleeting interest out of an extravagant helicopter ride or two. But painting the Prime Minister’s house? Providing him bodyguards? Please.

Moreover, this kind of muckraking against popular Prime Ministers does not work. Take, for example, the most high profile equivalent attack against Helen Clark – the speedgate scandal from July 2004. This one at least involved public safety and not just relatively minor sums of money. The three firms polling at the time collectively had National leading Labour by around one point just before the scandal broke, and a few weeks later had Labour leading by around four points. Not exactly a practical vindication of this kind of tactic.

My advice to Labour is to lift your sights and start to talk positively. Quit calling John Key a dick. New Zealanders collectively do not think he is a dick, and the last three years of polls suggest they are pretty firm in that view.

Instead, tell us what specifically you are going to do for New Zealanders after November. And no, “more than that dick John Key” is not a good answer.

Comments (21)

by Claire Browning on May 10, 2011
Claire Browning

If it had released its proposals on how to fix our schools or bring down the cost of living or protect the environment ...

Hey. Write your own manifesto ...

by Tom Gould on May 10, 2011
Tom Gould

It would be interesting to see the number and placement of the respective 'New Zealand Herald articles with Phil Goff in the headline or lead paragraphs.' I wonder where those telling the voters that Goff is unfit to lead and cannot win the upcoming election ran?

by Mr Magoo on May 10, 2011
Mr Magoo

New Zealanders collectively do not think he is a dick, and the last three years of polls suggest they are pretty firm in that view.

You are 100% correct on this. Which is why I think NZ really does deserve a 2nd term of National and all that it will bring. A country gets the government it deserves and all that.

I don't hope that but only because I have to live here...


by Hesiod on May 10, 2011

john keys is not a dick. he is a branch manager. the reason why the polls are not reflecting the ascendancy of the NZLP is because at the moment nobody really cares. too many bread and circuses. Keys is a fixer. when the blowtorch comes on he will scuttle  back to miami and his client list as fast as he can. Labour made a a lot of mistakes mainly because they could not predict the amount of the surplusses they collected and lunatics wanted to spend it all on noisy jap rice bombs and pandering to the basest instincts of over rich peasants. I dont think that wil happen this time.


by Justin Maloney on May 10, 2011
Justin Maloney

You hit the nail on the head, what is Labours policy, how are they going to actually make things better? No point saving all that stuff up for the election, you've gotta be showing all the time what the alternative is. We dont care if Key is rich, we dont care if the rich got a bigger tax cut, we dont care Key is smarmy or Brownlie arrogant, we dont care the DPS went with the PM on holiday. We do care what is a better policy on childcare, education, employment, business growth, controlling the dollar, minimising debt.

Even if the government does something good, that Labour agrees with, it is their job to say how it needs to be better and how it needs to be better.

I think it was Helen Clark who famously said it was easy to come up with policy in opposition - you dont actually have to enact any of it.

by Kevin Moore on May 10, 2011
Kevin Moore

Interesting to see some empirical analysis (any analysis!) but it strikes me as fairly crude and probably doesn't perform much of a function other than provide an angle for the post.

Obvious questions are: How many articles? Placement? Discursive tenor? (i.e., An article headlined 'Goff masterfully puts O'Connor in his place' would presumably be 'good' for Goff despite being on 'internal politics'?)

Policy talk isn't the solution (just as 'internal politics' isn't the problem). In most of these events it's the over-riding - and often underlying - theme of the 'narrative' (to use a term I don't like) that matters not the content. It's what the discourse achieves (what it shows), not what it supposedly is about.

All very sad for those of us who revere thought and analysis but I think it's more to the point.

Also, I know you are talking about a 'poll of polls', but a 2.5% shift, given all the other variables (e.g., how National are being reported, the fact that the number of days seems to be greater in the second period, error margins in polls, etc.) doesn't look that substantive an effect given the huge difference in coverage you appear to have discovered.

by Rob Salmond on May 10, 2011
Rob Salmond

Clare - Yes, I saw that you have a shiny new manifesto. So does Fran O'Sullivan. And I think I saw one or two more as well. I think that is a pretty good sign as to how bored the commentariat are right now, which is always a bad sign for an opposition.

Kevin - Certainly the analysis here is crude and once-over-lightly. This is a blog post, not a Master's thesis. I can't give you numbers, but I can tell you anecdotally there were very few postively framed "Goff masterfully puts O'Connor in his place" pieces, and a lot of negatively framed ones. And I did not notice any dramatic pattern in terms of placement. And the number of articles about 25 in the first period, and about 45 in the second (first period is 59 days, second period is 68 days).


by Tim Watkin on May 10, 2011
Tim Watkin

To play devil's advocate, Rob... Policy announcements are finite. You've got to work with that reality, so if Labour starts announcing too much now, more than six months out from the election, they might 'spend' their headlines too soon. Cos they're finite as well.

When do you get the best bang for your policy buck? Well, if they had released policy detail over the past couple of months, yesy, as you say it would have been covered. But not very extensively. If a news editor has to choose between a Hughes scandal vs policy announcement, you will always see the policy pushed to page six or item 10.

Voters who do see the stories might get excited now, and Labour might get a wee boost in the polls. But the strategy question is whether a drip feed over the next six months going to give them the super-boost it needs, or is it better to save their ammo and follow more of a 'big bang' theory.

Given history - the Nats released their economic policies about a month before the 2008 election, from memory - and the idea that half of all voters only firm up in their voting in the few weeks just before the election, you don't want to have spent all your headlines too soon and have nothing left for the run home.

On the other hand... It would have been great to have given the media something else to talk about in recent weeks, especially as the fuss started to ebb. And I'm not sure Labour can afford to enter the campaign 20 points behind.

In other words, it's a tough call.


by Tim Watkin on May 10, 2011
Tim Watkin

Oh, and the 'John Key's a dick' thing... This sort of politics may not work in the short-term, but it's an investment in the long run, no?

The paint signature and Canterbury speeding was useful for National years later, as it played into the narrative that Labour was arrogant and change needed. Be sure Labour's banking this stuff for later, when it will be pulled out as examples of Key's loose and careless nature.

In other words, Labour is building an alternative narrative piece by piece.

by Flat Eric on May 10, 2011
Flat Eric

Labour has no policies other than to go back to what it was doing wrong before it was turfed out last time.

by Andin on May 10, 2011

"In other words, Labour is building an alternative narrative piece by piece."

Hey! that's what the riff raff do, when the powerful /privileged cut themselves adrift from the rest of us.

Oh, it's got that bad?

by on May 11, 2011

If you saw John Key's performance at question time in parliament yesterday you would be forced to conclude that he was close to being removed from the House by the Speaker. His performance was a disgrace and Labour was right to get angry at such antics. If the Key admirers watched Parliament the nasty innuendo and cheap jibes that passed as answering questions may change their opinion of him.

by Rob Salmond on May 11, 2011
Rob Salmond

Tim - Interesting points. I certainly agree that policy announcements are not infinite, but I think "fixed" would be going to far. Parties can milk policy announcements if they want to - announcement 1 is "strategic considerations" with a couple of juicy quotes, number 2 is "broad parameters" with one main commitment and a couple more hints, number three is "options under consideration" etc. And while this kind of thing would not run day 1 of a leadership crisis meeting off the front page, once you get to day 3 of analysis of that meeting, something fresh has a chance I think.

Also, I think any Labour strategy that relies on a campaign-time big bang is pretty much doomed, because Labour's team represents incremental change, not big bangs. Do, ahen, familiar faces like Goff, King, Cunliffe, etc really expect to be able to pull off Shock and Awe. I do not think so. In that situation, I would plump for using some of their policy weapons now to try and get out of this funk. If they are in this funk in three months, it will not matter how much ammo they have saved up.

Last, I'm not sure how good of an investment the John Key Is A Dick thing is right now, partly because he may well leave in his second term anyway, and also because the specifics of what Labour are highlighting (paint, bodyguards, heated seats) really don't stick in the public mind the way the anti-Clark stuff did (art fraud! reckless speeding! secret frankenstein food!)


by Rob Salmond on May 11, 2011
Rob Salmond

Gerald - You are right that John Key in Parliament is pretty much a disgrace. Has been for a while. But, as another punditeer pointed out a few weeks ago, there is a huge disconnect between the John Key who does Q&A in Sumner and the John Key who does QT in Wellington. Labour have tried (and tried and tried) to get the public to care more about Wellington Key than Elsewhere Key, but it does not look to have worked.


by Tom Gould on May 11, 2011
Tom Gould

Gerald - and the Herald writes up the antics you describe as masterful, with Key making "mincemeat" of Labour "interrogators". More fair, balanced and accurate reportage from the Herald political team, the local print equivalent of Fox?

by Dave Guerin on May 11, 2011
Dave Guerin

Rob, I'm not so sure that the "John  Key is smarmy in Parliament" storyline will ever resonate because the opposition looks just as smarmy most days. It's not an environment where anyone looks good. The Labour questions are hardly sober and responsible in comparison. I'd expect that anyone watching question time for the first time would develop a low opinion of all MPs in that environment, which would probably just reinforce the general public view of MP's group behaviour.

by Tom Gould on May 11, 2011
Tom Gould

Dave - perhaps you have not watched Question Time for a while and are going from memory, but by my observation Speaker Lockwood Smith has tightened things up considerably, forcing the oppostion to be much more focused and almost encouraging the government side to punish them if they get too loose or political. It seems to me that these new disciplines do not apply to Key, however, who just plays it up for his mates in the gallery, who then dutifully write it up as a triumph.

by Matthew Percival on May 11, 2011
Matthew Percival

I don't watch question time but if John Key can outpoint Michael Cullen in "smarminess" I'd be extremely surprised/impressed.

Cullen was Gold.

by Dave Guerin on May 12, 2011
Dave Guerin

Tom, I look at it every couple of weeks and track relevant transcripts daily, and it has improved, but I still don't think any of them come off well. It's a debating environment that doesn't exist anywhere else in NZ society these days so it looks alien (and rude) to people who don't follow politics closely.

by on June 07, 2011

Apart from the 2 members of the public, who actually have time to listen to parliament, do you think the public really cares about the Wellington talk fest..

labour comes across in the media, that most people follow, as weak, ineffectual and constantly shooting themselves in the foot.

While "that nice Mr Key"!

Who was hand picked by the corporatocracy as a salesman.

Ex Labour voters do not believe they have changed their spots enough from their "Neo-Liberal light" stance and swinging voters see them in disarray.

by on September 26, 2011
88Amity2: asics shoes sale

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