Labour's big bang campaign strategy is high risk... But is there a bigger plan at play here?

Timing is everything. Whether it comes down to the woman of your dreams, the perfect job or when you get into the All Blacks, timing is of the essence. It's the same in politics.

And Labour is rolling the dice when it comes to the timing of its policy announcements and campaign strategy.

First, Labour has chosen to keep some major policy announcements for the election campaign. It was hammered earlier in the year for lacking solutions and new ideas, but opted to keep its powder dry. Well, that powder is exploding today -- as fireworks signs go up -- with the announcement this afternoon that it will raise the retirement age, slowly, from 65 to 67. That follows the likes of Australia and Britain.

If nothing else, you've got to say Goff's Labour has got some chutzpah. Its grabbed two of the third rails of politics in New Zealand -- a Capital Gains Tax and raising the retirement age. It's long been assumed these are guaranteed vote-losers.

That's not to even mention compulsory savings. Phew.

The party's chosen the big bang now, rather than announcing a year or more ago. The advantage of the latter is letting people get used to what could be a scary idea -- encouraging debate and discussion of detail and getting the kudos earlier for some brave thinking. To have rejected that path, for whatever reason, is risky. Will people have enough time to really understand the pros and cons of CGT and later super and the like?

It means voters' first impression of the policy is vital, simply because there's not much time for a second impression.

The advantage of announcing now is that Labour sets the agenda for the campaign, getting voters talking about the issues it wants to talk about and making National look reactive.

The other key strategic decision in focus this week is that of leaving Phil Goff off the party's billboards and not having a full-on campaign launch, complete with leader's speech. Again, timing counts.

The Labour crew will be hoping that the inevitable political criticism -- that Goff is hiding and perceived even within the party as damaging to the brand -- is done and dusted inside a few days. Only if that fades will it be able to advance its policies, upon which so much rides.

The idea, presumably, is then that Labour has 3-4 weeks to convince voters it is the party of ideas and vigour, compared to National as the party of "smile and wave" and "muddle through". And 3-4 weeks to explain why all thse big ideas are good ideas.

That's a tough ask, and a strategy full of risks. For one, you've got to beat a competitor at its strengths, not just at its weakness. If you give up on a leadership fight, you're hard pressed to beat John Key's National. For another, it means Labour's big point of difference is that it's the party of change, compared to National as the party of "steady as she goes".

You've got to think National would be pretty happy with that. These are times crying out for steadiness.

But Labour's strategy thus far raises one other point of timing. That is, which election campaign is Labour really gunning for? Looking at the decisions being made, I'm left with the impression that Labour has just begun its campaign for the 2014 election, rather than the one in a months time.

A focus on policy rather than the leader (seems somewhat sacrificial)... not attacking Key's popularity head on, but instead just chipping away at his weaknesses... bold, often unpopular new ideas that are usually only considered in the wilderness years... policies that will take a while for voters to get their head around, but ultimately provide a platform for attack and a clear difference from National... policies that re-brand and position a party rather than win votes... positions that could become more popular after three years of strict austerity and cuts.

It reads like a long-term strategy than a short-term one; like a party wanting to put a floor under the poll numbers, but not one taking the politically ruthless decisions necessary to win.

It looks like this election is a stop on the journey, not the destination.

Comments (9)

by Tim Watkin on October 27, 2011
Tim Watkin

As recently as July, Phil Goff said Labour wasn't looking at raising the entitlement age "at this time". 

"We think that we can avoid that alternative through the mechanisms that we've put in place in the past, that the Government has stopped funding, which is the Cullen Fund and through a policy ... that will raise tax revenue on an ongoing basis," Goff said.

"You can never say never, but there are sensible things that we can and should be doing now that would help us meet those costs."

Wonder how Goff was won over? I'm guessing Cunliffe must have been the advocate.

by Tim Watkin on October 28, 2011
Tim Watkin

I can tell you it's tricky getting National to front on a few things at the moment.

by Draco T Bastard on October 28, 2011
Draco T Bastard

The Labour crew will be hoping that the inevitable political criticism -- that Goff is hiding and perceived even within the party as damaging to the brand -- is done and dusted inside a few days.

Goff is hiding - while he's front and centre on the TV ads? Yeah, right.

IMO, Labour has the better focus. Goff as national leader with local candidates to represent the people. National has Key as national leader with local candidates to represent <i>John Key.</i> Not really surprising though - the right is the natural home of the authoritarians.

by Tim Watkin on October 28, 2011
Tim Watkin

Come on Draco, nice try but the phrase 'presidential-style campaigns' is hardly a new one. People vote for a PM as much as a party these days, and Goff's polling is woeful.

Even the Labour people will tell you they're taking the focus off him and putting it on policy, so let's not pretend his absence from the billboards is unusual. Of course it is. It's tactics. Labour's throwing everything at the idea they're the party of policy and bold ideas, not the party of the preferred Prime Minister.

by Draco T Bastard on October 28, 2011
Draco T Bastard

National are maintaining the presidential campaigns, Labour isn't. I think getting rid of them is the better idea.

by Che Nua on October 31, 2011
Che Nua

“Baby boomers are prone to incessant blogging about subjects for which they believe they have some peculiar insight, and may even become enraptured of their own words such that they seek a type of self-gratifying stimulus by frequent posting of response comments on their own blogs” (


“Baby boomers were the first generation to grow up with television; some of the most popular shows during the baby boomer era were The Brady BunchGilligan's IslandThe Twilight Zone and Happy Days(


“TV producer and baby boomer wannabe Txx Wxxxxx” (

by Tim Watkin on October 31, 2011
Tim Watkin

You got a point, Che? You're far too subtle for me on a Monday morning...

I make comments to have a conversation with readers (both those with something interesting to say and, it seems, those who don't). Seems polite to me.

And I'm not a baby boomer. I've written quite a bit on my frustration with how boomers dominate politics for their own good – there's a search engine on this site, feel free to use it.

And as usual, what you read on Tumeke is plain wrong (except for the producer bit).

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