Political strategy need not be an entirely fact-challenged zone.

Lately there have been a few posts flying around about the strategy Labour should employ to win the 2014 election. Here are a few factoids that may help that discussion:


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.

Comments (11)

by Dave Guerin on August 14, 2012
Dave Guerin

Rob, on your point 1, there is a strong view amongst some Labour activists that the 2011 election was lost in large part because Labour voters stayed home. That was what Josie Pagani was apparently seeeing to counter. You skirted around that issue above, but from my recollection, Labour's vote on election day was 1-2% above what they were polling just prior to the election and I'm not aware of any public analysis that backs up the "our voters stayed home" view of some in Labour. Any thoughts?

by Rob Salmond on August 14, 2012
Rob Salmond

@Dave: The normal studies of turnout show that as people get closer to the margins of society (poorer, younger, less white, etc) they are less likely to vote. But when people close to the margins of society do vote, they usually vote left. Which would mean that many of the 2011 non-voters would likely have voted Labour or Green had they turned out. I'm not aware of public analysis specifically on the NZ 2011 case, but equally I haven't seen anything to persuade me that the general case doesn't apply in this instance.

by Dave Guerin on August 14, 2012
Dave Guerin

Ta Rob, I understand that, but I still think the specific issues in 2011 would benefit from some deeper analysis. BTW the captcha system here really deters comments - it's almost illegible :)

by Rich on August 14, 2012

convincing voters they are flat out wrong

Or, convincing voters that a step change is needed and articulating a different vision.

It worked for Thatcher. And Lange. (and, a long time ago in countries far away, for FDR and Attlee).

It's strange that we're at a time of major economic crisis, but politics is still about tweaking and trimming. Maybe it'll change after the China Crash.

by Paul Williams on August 14, 2012
Paul Williams

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.

A point well made Rob. The battle between pragamtic policy making and the desire to convert others seems to trouble Labour more than it does National. Perhaps though this is just a function of timing and it was as challenging for National when in opposition as it is for Labour now?

by Jordan Carter on August 14, 2012
Jordan Carter

The concerns that people have expressed to me about the welfare anecdote is that instead of trying to reshape the argument about social welfare, it bought into conservative framing instead. I don't think that's what David was trying to do, but I can see how other people think that his words had that effect.

Labour needs to grow its electoral support. To me the interesting debate is about whether the best pitch is to the enrolled non vote, or current National voters -- or both, if there is no conflict.

by alexb on August 14, 2012

How exactly is a party, supposedly of the left working towards a more socialist state, going to excite potential activists simply by being not-quite-National?

by barry on August 14, 2012

It is all very well to say that Labour has to appeal to the centre, but the main thing is that hey have to be seen to stand for something.

If they are appealing to the same vote as National by saying the same things as National then they are not giving people reson to vote for them.  The "centre" is less fixed in its opinions than the fringes.  If someone stands up and says something that they might not agree with, but sounds as though they mean it they will be given a fair hearing.

It is clear that asset sales was not popular in the "centre" at last election,  however people still voted National because they believed that National was more sincere.  Labour can afford to be pro-beneficiary if they make people think that they believe it.  If it sound as thought they are just pandering to public opinion they will lose.

It seems that Labour is hoping to win by sailing under the radar until people get sick of National.  Who knows?  It worked for National in 2008.

by Rob Salmond on August 15, 2012
Rob Salmond

@alexb, barry: I think and hope you will find, come election time, that Labour has a platform that is not at all National-lite. Telling one story in a way that National might is not the same as adopting their platform wholesale.

by David Hall on August 16, 2012
David Hall

"Ideology in New Zealand is a bell curve, and a steep one at that."

I worry about equating ideology with peoples' self-identification as Left, Right or somewhere in between. If you were to ask this clump of centrists about their specific policy beliefs on a range of issues, I imagine that their answers would vary radically. Because reducing a multi-dimensional construct like political identity to a two-dimensional dyad invites people to 'average out' their specific opinions, to define themselves as fuzzy grey centrists, even though there might be very little interpersonal agreement. A social democrat, who interpreted (0) Left with communism, might put themselves somewhere near the middle, because they recognize a role for the market in actualizing left-wing outcomes. So might a religious conservative, because they recognize a role for the state in preserving tradition, and thereby do not identify as (10) Right. Also, a card-carrying libertarian who believed in free market ideals on the one hand, and socially liberal ideals on the other, might average out their preferences and put themselves squarely in the middle. It doesn't help that what people mean or understand by Left and Right in terms of policy issues is controversial now and changes over time. Look at immigration in terms of left-right politics over the past century. The Third Way politics of the present is another phase...

I recognize that the left-right spectrum has a vague reliability as a construct for political identity, but ideology is too rich a concept to reduce to rightness vs leftness. The idea of "centrist voters" masks the possibility for enormous diversity of opinion. One line of inquiry is this: If we (safely) assume the centrist clump all have an aversion to the dole-bludger (real or mythological), then do all centrists worried about free-riding also overlap on other issues and, more importantly, do they all worry about free-riding with the same intensity relative to other issues? Do all centrists think the free-rider issue is more important than, say, the white collar criminal? or the foreign land-owner? or gay marriage? It's one thing to observe that all centrists disapprove of free riders when asked that question in isolation, but how many would prioritize welfare reform over and above other issues of the day?

by Kate Archer on August 16, 2012
Kate Archer

I am quite disappointed to read your comment about the beneficiary painting their roof. I thought you were more principled tHan to use this kind of story as a political positioning tool.  Iwas tutored by you in pols and just thought you seemed more genuine than to defend the use such of such a shallow dog whistle.

I do suggest that Shearer was wrong on the facts, he didn't know the facts! 

Jordan is nice to give the benefit of the doubt to Shearer but your spin and that of Josie's really shows it was a calculated attempt to reposition Labour on welfare by playing into a public view of beneficiaries as bludgers.  I am a bit sad about it to be honest.


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