Labour failed to learn National's lesson from 2002 and paid the price, so it's now time for the party to get start selling Brand Shearer

A wise old mate once told me that if you want to understand any industry, enterprise or activity, just do the worst job it has to offer. There can't be any worse job in politics than being a scrutineer at a recount where your candidate slowly, vote by miscounted vote, loses a tenuous hold on an electorate.

That's just what I did a few weeks ago as Carmel Sepuloni's slim margin was turned around by Paula Bennett.

Gruelling and wearisome though this process may be, it’s the coal face of politics and there’s always much to be learned.

My first judicial recount was in Hastings in September 1978 and it was there I noticed something that arguably won an election thirty years later.

That happened again in Waitakere in 2011, but this time I also had the chance to cogitate on what had been a calamitous result for Labour and to plot an armchair strategy for the party’s return to the Treasury Benches in 2014.

Here’s chapter one.

First, it was a bad result for Labour with a loss of around eight per cent of its 2008 party vote and the associated reduction in its caucus numbers but let’s take a glass-half-full approach and see a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy outcome.

Despite the twenty seven per cent party vote, the lowest since god-knows-when, the vote for Labour Party candidates was less demoralising at 35%. This means that a bit more than a third of the participating electorate voted Labour in one fashion.

It also points to a very basic strategic error by the Labour Party’s campaign planners.
It seems that Labour’s strategists decided that it was pointless and possibly counter-productive to attack John Key on the grounds of his stratospheric popularity.

This was probably right but the next decision, to leave Leader Phil Goff largely out of campaign publicity, was plainly a serious mistake. The Party Vote is presidential in nature, and no matter how your leader is scoring in the “beauty contest” it is essential that he or she is top-dead-centre in any campaign.

I take the attitude that Phil Goff was much more saleable than Labour’s strategists assumed, and I think that Goff proved this point late in the campaign.

In Te Atatu, the contrast between the two big parties’ approaches was plain.
National’s hoardings featured John Key and Tau Henare’s smiling faces with the slogan “Party Vote National”, whereas Labour heavily promoted its candidate Phil Twyford without any apparent attempt to feature Goff, or promote a party vote for Labour. The result was entirely predictable with Twyford scoring a heavy victory over Henare and National taking the all-important party vote in the electorate by a country mile.

The same happened all over the country. It was not a local phenomenon.

Add a couple of per cent to Labour’s Party vote and see what this does to the result.


Probably the most irritating aspect of this approach is that it exactly duplicated National’s 2002 election strategy and produced the same result. If we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it (or something like that).

The lesson for 2014 is clear. A powerful Party Vote campaign featuring the Leader is essential for success.

I’ll scribble more about leadership in future offerings, but it is sufficient at this point to observe that David Shearer is the most naturally saleable Labour Leader in a generation, but can’t be expected to succeed without support from all levels of the party.

Getting out there and selling Shearer is a task that must start now and can be part of a broader Labour Party revival.

One other glimmer of hope for the Labour Party is that Prime Minister Key doesn’t appear to have Shearer’s measure as evidenced by his uncharacteristically inept speech at the opening of parliament.

It was a back-footed effort, strangely inappropriate for a PM who should have been revelling in a second victory.

This was the best evidence of a good start for Shearer.

Comments (7)

by Simon James Parish on December 28, 2011
Simon James Parish

Your analysis of Te Atatu might be right Mr Williams, but it could also be that some electorate voters chose Twyford because he appears to have been much more active in the house than Henare already (- some would say that Mr Henare has been invisible) and also, of course, they were sure of getting two MPs, given the candidates list positions.

by mickysavage on December 28, 2011

Hey Mike I think you were spammed ...

 [Ed: Yes - he was. For some reason, a bunch of Chinese fake goods suppliers think the Pundit audience really, really wants to buy shoes, jackets and US Football jerseys from them. This seems unlikely to us, but they make our life a merry hell tidying up after them.]

I agree with you whole heartedly about the effect on the party vote the campaign had.  But there were generic party vote billboards to put up but the faint hearted electorate candidates preferred the electorate candidate billboards.


I think in the future some central discipline and guidance would not go amiss.  And everywhere except in the most marginal ofseats should run a pure party vote campaign.

by Chris de Lisle on December 29, 2011
Chris de Lisle

I'm a bit confused here; what happened in Hastings in 1978? I see that Labour won the seat, but I can't find much beyond that. What is the connection to Waitakere in 2011?

by XChequer on December 29, 2011

"I think in the future some central discipline and guidance would not go amiss"

lol @ Mickey Sav

Nice mate. Uncle Joe Vissarionovich couldn't (or wouldn't) have said it better. It's remarks like these that are at the core of Labour's inability to connect with the populace: the relationship seems to be what can the electorate do for us rather than how can we serve?

by Frank Macskasy on January 06, 2012
Frank Macskasy

"One other glimmer of hope for the Labour Party is that Prime Minister Key doesn’t appear to have Shearer’s measure as evidenced by his uncharacteristically inept speech at the opening of parliament. Tt was a back-footed effort, strangely inappropriate for a PM who should have been revelling in a second victory."

Indeed, Mike. I watched a Youtube vid of Key's parliamentary response and it was truly embarressing to see. Key  behaved like a hyped-up teenager pointing and hassling the new  kid in class. It was juvenile behaviour.

Put those vids on TV1 and TV3 News for a week solid and the electorate's love affair with Key will evaporate by lunctime on Sunday.



by Baby Boomer on January 14, 2012
Baby Boomer

History does not repeat. Stupidty does. As a Labour supporter I can say that I have seen nothing that the Labour party has done since the election (including, or especially, the leadership change) that convinces me that the "gaggle of gays", (whose primary interest is Gay rights (above the party's philosophy)), who have such a large sway in the party, are coming to the party, to enbrace change that is needed. The opposite in fact, given that all candidates pandered to the gay faction by there choice of number 2's. Stupidity is repeating. People see Labour as a gay party.  This is the image that needs to change.  (NB: This is not a rant against Gays, but rather an anlaysis of where Labour has and continues to fail.)

by Chris Oden on January 29, 2012
Chris Oden

The election was in November. It is now end of January and the Parliamentary year is yet to begin. What did Baby Boomer expect to happen over the holiday period?Also, I think BB WAS having a rant about Gays.Where is his evidence that the Labour Party is putting Gay rights above their philosophy? I have been hearing and reading a lot from people about Labour not performing yet but you need to give them a chance! Early days yet.

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