Lessons from a recount – where Labour went wrong

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.