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Labour’s Defeat Points to a Forgotten Target Market

NZ Elections Ballot Box
Image by the Electoral Commission.

With the devastating defeat for the Labour Party in the election, Labour seems to have lost touch with what resonates with New Zealanders. 

In business terms, it has become disconnected from its target market and is struggling to win back market share. Politics is the ultimate marketing challenge, as every voter has just one vote, and everything the leaders do throughout their three years can affect the party’s brand identity. 

As Linda Clark said in the TV3 coverage, Labour was rejected in 2008, rejected in 2011 and rejected yet again in 2014.   National’s result in this election means it could govern alone (just) if it chose to, which has never before happened under MMP.  It’s also unprecedented for a NZ political party to increase its winning margin when entering its third term.  Labour must work out why New Zealanders are rejecting it.

The blame cannot be laid entirely at David Cunliffe’s feet. He actually performed very well in the campaign – much better than most political commentators expected. Labour has had three leaders in three years, and none have been able to lift the polls against National.  

As it analyses its defeat, Labour must be willing to be brutally honest, and be willing to make dramatic change in the areas that it finds are repelling voters.  After all, it does not want to go down in history as spending four terms in opposition.

What if there was something significant and obvious that Labour is overlooking, that is causing New Zealand to reject it en masse?

I would suggest that Labour has overwhelmingly miscalculated the impact that its social meddling has had on its appeal to voters with more traditional values – the social conservatives on the political spectrum.

Helen Clark – the strongest leader the Labour party had in many years – felt the brute force of New Zealand’s rejection, falling from the lofty heights of political ratings, after a third term in which three significant social liberal policies were pushed through. There was  the anti-smacking bill, in which Labour MPs were whipped into voting for the bill, regardless of their conscience.  The civil unions bill.  And the prostitution reform bill, in which prostitution was legalised in New Zealand.

All three policies moved Labour away from its roots of appealing to the hard working, rugged unionised working class. 

Then while in opposition Labour’s Louisa Wall introduced the bill for gay marriage. While this was a conscience vote, and even John Key voted for it, the bill still had its origins and strongest promotion from within Labour.  

Labour promised to continue down this same path when it launched its 2014 election policy of introducing a third gender to New Zealand passports and drivers’ licences. 

The concerns of conservative voters have been largely ignored by the political commentators when reviewing Labour’s unstoppable slide in the polls. However there has been a small smattering of quotes from MPs and former MPs have made their way into the media.

In Labour’s most recent round of leadership change in August last year, Labour’s openly gay Deputy Leader Grant Robertson was one of the contenders.  Georgina Beyer, the world’s first transsexual mayor and MP, feared that Grant would not be a good choice as the debate over gay marriage had invigorated social conservatives. “”I get the feeling out there that there’s a little bit of a backlash to what is being labelled social engineering”, she said

In the same article John Tamihere, a former Labour MP turned radio presenter, implied that a some MPs’ core reason for entering politics was their sexuality and said the Labour Party was associated with a string of pieces of legislation which amounted to “extraordinary activism”.

“Because of the contemporaneous nature of where Labour has taken gay rights, it’s very hard to distance a Grant Robertson from the authority that the rainbow division has within the party.”

In the weeks leading up to the recent elections, NZ First candidate Cliff Lyon was extremely blunt when criticised Labour for having lost touch with their working class roots.

“If you have a look at their supporters they are really gays, lesbians, the unemployed who they throw heaps of money at, and what I might call the loony intelligent left who sit up in Auckland University.”

Mangere’s long-standing Labour MP Su’a William Sio also shared with NZ Herald that he was seeing a big shift among his Pacific Island community, from their previously staunch Labour stance, to now supporting National and other parties. One of the big reasons for the shift, according to Mr Sio, was the gay marriage bill put forward by Labour. 

So how should Labour choose what it will change to win back NZ voters?  In the post-election fall out, Francis Ritchie wrote a heartfelt plea in his Open Letter to the NZ Labour Party to once again become a strong opposition party by realising the importance of the social conservative votes it is ignoring.

“I believe New Zealand is more socially conservative than many in the political and media realm realise. I believe that was reflected in the vote”, he says.   Francis’ blog post has resonated with many and gives an articulate voice to a large group of voters who feel abandoned by Labour, and in turn have abandoned Labour at the polling booth. 

So how can Labour reconnect with its target market and rebuild its voter base?

There is already much talk about “modernising” or “refreshing” the party.  While social conservative voters are just one group of voters Labour should aim to appeal to, it may well be the biggest group of voters it has abandoned. If it doesn’t want to have a fourth term in opposition, Labour needs to reposition its brand to appeal to a broad range of voters.

One way to do this will be to remove the agenda of the “rainbow division” (as John Tamihere called it) from its political aspirations and move MPs who hold more conservative values into positions of stronger influence within the party. While that won’t be the only changes it needs to make of course, I believe it will be essential for it to reposition its brand. Otherwise we might be writing about this all over again in 2017.