In which I respond to Andrew's post responding to Claire column and add my thoughts on how history repeats... or not

I love viewing elections through the lens of history; the Americans do it so well and thoroughly, I wish there was more of it here. On that basis I really like what Claire Robertson's done in her Herald column – looking for patterns in the past. There's much truth to be found there. And I'm interested in the trend Claire has identified and her underlying point that most voters aren't as swingable as they might seem or say and many decide early.

It's a point strategists should wrestle with and learn from when they advise parties to keep their big policy announcements until the campaign. Arguably you have to lay the groundwork earlier.

But there is also the simple truth that all patterns are true... until they're not. It used to be that you had to win Eden to win an election... or Hamilton East (or was it West?). There are rules too about two term governments always getting third terms, but then you look at the specifics and see that situations that don't exist now – unprecedented prosperity, the Springbok Tour – were needed to get those governments over the line.

You see, nothing is ever quite the same and all these things pass. Every electoral rule gets broken at some point.

Andrew has thoroughly made some great points in response to Claire, but I can't help but want to add in my own thoughts, which agree with much of what he says, but some of Claire's points as well.

First, Andrew points out there are only six examples in Claire's data-set. I'd go further. There have been only two elections under MMP when we had parties seeking a third term, and you could make a case that they are only really comparable ones. What does each one tell us?

The first was 1996, which a) was the very first MMP election and b) was decided by Winston Peters's negotiations and deliberations rather than a clear mandate from voters, whether they decided how they'd vote a year out or a day out. Certainly a year out from the election few would have confidently predicted Peters would have chosen to support National, so it's hard to be clear just what voters knew or thought they were backing a year out.

The other was 2005. Look hard at that election and tell me campaigns don't matter. Student loans and the brethren moved the polls late; from memory a week out the swing was looking pretty good for Brash.

I tend to think Claire's right in the tension between Labour and the Greens. Even allowing for Andrew/Danyl's point that voters who stayed home last time could be vital, those voters will be mostly of the left and will be hotly contested by... Labour and the Greens. They could both grow their vote if they can get them out, but their public efforts to motivate them and win them to their side will likely create some hostility between the potential partners. Especially with National trying to paint the Greens as dragging Labour to extremes and Labour trying to win some from the centre as well.

In regards to the Maori Party, I'm back with Andrew. Flavell is less impressed with National than Sharples or Turia and could well be more interested in a coalition with Labour. Given the Tuhoe raids, unemployment and the like, the message he gets from his rohe could be very different from the one given to Turia or Sharples.

You could argue that the Maori Party maximised its power and attention by doing deals with National after the past two elections, but that it's now spent all the political capital it can on that trick and it needs to find another, such as switching sides to stay alive. Indeed, if you take Claire's approach and use history as your guide, you could say that the Maori Party has always followed power rather than personalities or eve  ideologies (as they always argue, they get most done for Maori when they're at the table) so if they could stay at the table and do so with Labour (where most of their party votes go), why assume they wouldn't?

And then there's New Zealand First. Again, Claire makes a good point about the cross-benches (or co-governance). But Peters is as likely to sit there propping up Labour as National, given his antipathy with Key and the policy gains he could win from Labour.

The other point that's new this term, and that Claire doesn't mention, is that the Greens are now a stable and distinct third party unlikely to drop back into single figures. The stability of its support was not a factor in the previous elections Claire is drawing from, but it will be next year. As Andrew and I have kept banging on, for the first time a two party bloc, even at a low ebb, has been only a few percentage points from overtaking the largest party. That's a new fact that could change the existing pattern.

So while nothing should ever be forgotten, it's also true that nothing is quite as it has been before. That also shouldn't be forgotten. History is a great guide, but it only allows us to see so far ahead, and even then the view can change as we walk.


Comments (10)

by Gregor W on November 15, 2013
Gregor W

The other point that's new this term, and that Claire doesn't mention, is that the Greens are now a stable and distinct third party unlikely to drop back into single figures.

I think this is probably the most important point. The conventional 'wisdom' of rightish professional punditry seems infer that 'The Left' is some sort of amorphous blob that stays roughly the same size, with votes sliding between the GP and LP but with both parties having fundamentally the same platform.

There is definitely an intersection of values, but they are not by any means substitutable. This probably explains the efforts to promote the facile analysis of "A vote for the Greens drags Labour to the Left" by Farrar et al., conveniently forgetting that the LP has never been in formal coalition with the GP, and that until very recently, the LP has been very clearly trying to fight the battle for the centre.

by Richard Aston on November 18, 2013
Richard Aston

Tim do you have links to Claire Robertson's article and Andrew's response?


by Tim Watkin on November 18, 2013
Tim Watkin

Richard, Andrew's response is directly below mine on the home page. This one. And the link to Claire's piece is in his first line...

by Tim Watkin on November 18, 2013
Tim Watkin

Gregor, yes but... Since the Greens made their gains to be a secure double-digit party in the previous term (can anyone identify the particular year they crossed the stability line?) most of the centre-left vote has just moved back and forth between L and G. See our poll of polls. So no while they don't think the same, the blob has stayed mostly the same size for some years now. AND L and G want the public to think of them as complementary because they only look a threat to National when you combine their numbers.

So while yes Labour wants the centre and yes they've never been in coalition, both parties want us to think of them as natural, healthy partners.

by Richard Aston on November 18, 2013
Richard Aston

The logic - what there is of it - in Claire Robertson's article is so faulty I am left wondering why she wrote it in the first place. I more paranoid view could be it is part of a communication strategy , get people with high sounding qualifications to say Natioanal will win regardless and all  the non voters just won't bother to vote. If you are a swinging voters you'd be likely to swing to the winner - National.

As Andrew points out the Labour/Green -  National margin is tight and with 26% of non voters mainly leanding to Labour it won't take much to shift the balance towards Labour. Mmmmm what can we do to discourage the non voters ....




by stuart munro on November 18, 2013
stuart munro

I imagine the target, Richard, is the only slightly politically interested Herald reader - for them the caption may be enough, and they won't be reading for disconfirming statements.

Not many of them out there, but National is truly desperate, with few natural partners and a constituency that is going to punish them for stealing all those assets. 2014 is going to be a bad year to be a Gnat list puppy.

by Tim Watkin on November 18, 2013
Tim Watkin

Richard and Stuart, you're far too cynical. You may not agree, but it's perfectly legitimate to look at the trends of the past to see how the future will play out. One column isn't going to change turn-out and Stuart, you also make it sound like a foregone conclusion as well... which is exactly what Claire's being criticised for! Point is, it's looking close and there are new variables in play that make it hard to pick.

by Gregor W on November 19, 2013
Gregor W

Tim - I didn't mean to suggest that rightish pundit's weren't correct in the size of the left bloc (though they do tend to discount the left leaning preponderance of non voters) but rather, that they like to think the respective parties ideas and appeal are amorphous - effectively that the platforms are interchangeable.

So yes, while they are complementary in making up a 'left bloc' with the electoral proportion staying roughly the same in terms of votes cast, both parties have quite distinct approaches to policy and electioneering. The GP attempts to grow via encouraging new voters (which actiually benefits all parties in terms of turnout, but advantages the left moreso), while the LP focus on swing capture.

This is why over time, I suspect the GP will "grow the left pie" through new voter turnout as well slowly erode the LPs share 35% historical voting left, while the LP will continue to stagnate as it flails about deciding to be centre-left or centre-right depending on how well National is doing in the polls.

by Rich on November 19, 2013

the lens of history; the Americans do it so well

It's more the lens of statistical innumeracy. If you have a fairly large number of electorates compared to the number of elections, then even if each electorate voted at random, several would have gone with the winning party every time. That doesn't mean that they'll do so next time.

(And there is of course a correlation between a finely balanced electorate and the overall result - but by no means a perfect one - demographics might change, and so might voting attitudes).


by stuart munro on November 19, 2013
stuart munro

Tim - balancing agitprop. Herald didn't want it either - they privileged Claire's column to spare her the inevitable ridicule.

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