Why did Labour drop to an 85-year low?

23:02, Nov 29 2011

Labour has decided to choose a new leader in the next two weeks. I think it is a mistake to rush the choice, because they are choosing an "answer" without knowing what the question is.

Labour's share of the vote dropped 7 percentage points from 2008. It is highly unusual for opposition parties to lose significant support from the previous election. The saying is "In government, friends come and go while enemies accumulate." This does not apply to an opposition party that doesn't have the burden of government.

As one can see above, this is an 85-year low for Labour's vote. The other observation is that big drops normally happen when you are in government, and are being kicked out. Labour fell in 1949, 1960, 1975, 1990 and 2008. The other big fall was in 1996, when Labour was still at civil war between Moore and Clark, plus there was Jim Anderton's Alliance to compete with.

So the question that Labour should be seeking to ask and answer, before they choose a new leader, is why did we drop 7 per cent from 2008?

In 2002 National dropped 9 percentage points from their 1999 result. They did not change the leader immediately. They commissioned a review to ascertain what National did wrong. It was led by a then obscure list nominee (who withdrew before the list was ranked) called Steven Joyce. The review team spent several months interviewing over 100 people ranging from MPs and candidates to staff and key volunteers.

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The results of the review led to significant change for National, including constitutional change.

I do not at this stage know why Labour dropped 7 per cent. It is likely to be a myriad factors. However, unless Labour actually accept they got some things wrong, they are likely to repeat their mistakes. One Labour MP seems to think that their major problem was just their spin. Phil Quin at the New Tasman quotes from an email from Charles Chauvel to supporters:

Labour's policy programme was brave and progressive and endorsed by a big majority of New Zealanders, so Labour needs to concentrate on refreshing its messaging and its lineup.

Quin (a former Labour staffer) labels this complacent, delusional and staggeringly arrogant for the implicit suggestion that all Labour needs is better spin and a new leader.

Another former Labour staffer, John Pagani, blogs:

The monotonous claim that they ran a great campaign needs to stop. The assertion is tone deaf, arrogant, and embarrassing.

Instead they need to say, "the people rejected us and we understand we have to earn back their trust. We are proud of much of what we stand for, but we need to go back and have a new look at what we are wrong about."

Pagani also makes the point that while some Labour policies were popular, others were unpopular such as extending the in-work tax credit to beneficiaries and opposition to national standards. I would add to that also their pledge to repeal the three strikes law.

Rushing to change the leader wll not be a magic cure for Labour. I'm not advocating that Goff remains leader, as I think Labour was always going to struggle offering someone who entered Parliament in 1981 as the face for the future. A new leader is part of the solution for Labour, but not the only part.

If Labour followed what National did in 2002 and had an independent review of what went wrong, they would be better placed to fix things. Aspects which could be reviewed are policies, brand loyalty (many MPs removed Labour branding from their signs), their terrible list ranking which booted out some of their best new MPs, the union influence in selections, the stakeholder relationships, their communications, their parliamentary performance and so on.

I'd be interested to hear why you think Labour's vote was 7 per cent lower than in 2008, especially if you once voted Labour. Was it simply that the Greens did well? Was it that NZ First picked up tactical votes to stop National? Was it Goff? Was it one or more of their policies? And related to that, what would Labour need to do to get your vote back? Is there one particular leadership contender that appeals more to you?

David Farrar is a centre-right blogger affiliated to the National Party. His disclosure statement is here.

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