Election battle lines drawn

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 08:33 02/03/2014

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Matt McCarten may be front-page news but, for Labour, like National, election-year strategy will rely on a much wider group of strategists and tacticians.

Some old faces - notably bovver boy and former campaign director Trevor Mallard - are missing from the Labour lineup for the first time in years.

The party has instead taken a punt on a new face, David Talbot, on secondment from pollsters UMR Research, as its campaign director - a job usually given to a senior MP or top party office holder.

On National's side, Steven Joyce and Jo de Joux have built up a formidable reputation after leading the campaign team through three elections.

Like Labour, National uses a mix of polls and focus groups to keep its finger on the pulse - services provided by blogger David Farrar's polling company Curia Research, and Australia-based pollsters Crosby Textor. Labour's polling and focus group work is done by UMR.

Labour's lineup Labour's campaign strategy team will include leader David Cunliffe, deputy David Parker, president Moira Coatsworth and secretary Tim Barnett as well as senior MPs Grant Robertson (the spokesman in 2011), Nanaia Mahuta and Phil Twyford who, as head of Oxfam, has valuable experience organising grassroots volunteers.

McCarten's inclusion as Cunliffe's chief of staff is expected to energise and mobilise the base.

Mallard, campaign manager in 2011, has been dropped from the team, a sign of how much on the outer he is from Cunliffe, whose leadership he opposed.

Talbot, a keen cyclist, cut his teeth in politics as a volunteer worker for former Labour strategist Pete Hodgson and worked with former Labour president Mike Williams. He stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate before spending a year in Britain with online campaigners 38 degrees, then returning to work for UMR.

The "I'm in" for Labour campaign now running on social media is his brainchild and aims to seed ideas and messages with Labour's activists to spread among the wider support base and electorate at large.

The kind of face-to-face meetings and door knocking that was so successful in the Christchurch East by-election will also be key, though it requires a big pool of activists which may be easy in one electorate but difficult spread over the whole country. Labour will target seats and areas - not just electorates but also places and organisations where its voters are concentrated.

It will start with a minimum target - in seat terms that suggests South Auckland, the Maori seats, Christchurch east and south of the Square and the Wellington region.

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Talbot says online tools will also be used to improve internal organisation, such as through collaborative editing of documents.

Labour will also have a group Talbot will head that aims to match National, which, he concedes, is effective and "nimble" when issues arise on the campaign trail.

It will be backed by focus group work that uncovers voters' "sentiments", tests policy and refines the message.

National's lineup Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce is Prime Minister John Key's closest lieutenant, both around the Cabinet table, and on the campaign trail.

As campaign chairman, he will spend the election period working out of Wellington and conducting the campaign effort.

Key and his inner circle will decide the daily strategy - although various ministers will come and go from day to day, the core team of Key, his chief of staff Wayne Eagleson, Joyce, Gerry Brownlee, Judith Collins and Bill English will remain unchanged.

Joyce, a self-made millionaire, cut his teeth as campaign manager for National in 2005 and is now planning for his fourth election. Campaign manager Jo de Joux goes back even further - her first campaign was 1999.

Together they have a formidable reputation, winning two out of the last three elections and lifting National's vote from 21 per cent to 39 per cent in 2005.

Said to be a straight shooter with good political instincts, de Joux is deliberately low profile - her role is to keep the wheels oiled and make sure the decisions taken by the strategy team get implemented.

National is often said to be disadvantaged by having fewer foot soldiers on the ground than Labour, although party insiders dispute that and say the growth in membership under Key has given it 1000-plus members in some areas.

Young Nats in particular will be key to mobilising the grassroots for jobs like erecting hoardings.

But National acknowledges Labour's ability to tap into union resources gives it an extra weapon in its arsenal.

Both parties will have strategies built around social media and, increasingly, tools like YouTube, but National's edge could be the experience behind the team.

In 2008 it threw out much of the carefully planned strategy around policy announcements once the global financial crisis made it clear the rules had changed.

- Sunday Star Times

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