The two faces of National’s hitherto successful PR strategy
UPDATE (19 Aug, evening): Literally in the last few hours, National have unveiled some policy on their website. This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date. But the second half is still relevant, and I reckon it’s worth leaving the first half online as a time capsule of what National’s campaign looked like until WhaleGate. Coincidence? What do you think?
Original blog (19 Aug, afternoon):
“the left have given up on the policy argument. They don’t think they can beat the National Government on the issues … so what they’ve decided is they’ll play the man, not the ball … but we’re going to keep talking about the ball.”
This is similar to his quip when Laila Harré announced she was running against Key in his local seat:
“we won’t be having much of a debate about policy – the only policy the Internet Party has is to make sure Dotcom isn’t extradited.”
In fact, I’ve been following and compiling the various parties’ policies, and the Internet Party have far more policy on their website than National do – even though the IP have only had a few months to formulate theirs. In fact, National have less policy on their (single) policy page than any other party – significantly less than most of them. On word count, they only provide literally 2.4% as much as Labour or 1.1% as much as NZ First:
It is true that some parties (notably Labour, the Greens and the Internet Party) provide fuller versions of their policies or additional documents, linked from their main policy pages. This is the main difference between National’s and the IP’s policy websites.
If we’re generous, we can include a couple of documents from January about their 2014 priorities in this category… the speech is largely not policy, but they do link to these documents at the bottom of their policy page. This time National manage to claw their way up to 2nd-to-last, because ACT only expand upon two of their policies – but they’re still left in the dust by the left-of-NZ-First parties he accuses of giving up on policy:
It’s also worth noting that Labour and the IP both state that even more policy is forthcoming, and the Greens are frequently updating theirs. I wonder if National’s are on the way, too? [update: I guess so! National also now say there’s more on the way]
Here’s the full data, if you’re interested:
While I spent an embarrassingly long time on this [update: now-obsolete! grrr…] number-crunching, we actually didn’t need these numbers to know that National try to run policy-free campaigns and policy-free politics wherever possible. They don’t engage with public questions like this, this or this. They don’t engage (openly) with blogs; certainly not opposition ones, and certainly not on policy questions.They don’t really put policy on their billboards – some people had to do it for them last election. Their flagship policies are generally pretty unpopular. They [update: still] have [basically] no policy about some of the biggest issues facing NZ (climate change, child poverty, inequality and the housing crisis) – in fact, they often deny that they’re issues.
Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics has provided some alarming insight into what kind of politics they do instead of policy politics. I haven’t read it, but Danyl McLaughlin helpfully summarises the basic thesis thus:
John Key’s National government uses a ‘two tier’ communications strategy; positive communications, which are focused around John Key, who is presented as ‘relaxed’ and decent, and negative/attack communications, which are conducted covertly by senior staffers in Key’s office and fed to the media mostly – but not exclusively – through Cameron Slater’s WhaleOil blog.
Obviously, the emphasis of the book is on the negative ‘tier’; the positive ‘tier’ was already quite obvious… but in fact both strategies involve “playing the man, not the ball” … positively, they focus on “the man” of John Key, his smiling face [update: which emblazons 12/18 of these and 4/4 of these plus a bonus] and perhaps some content-free feel-good generalities coming out of it. Negatively – well, you can read the book or the excerpts or the leaks or the blogs yourself.
Playing the man in these two ways has been a winning strategy so far, and has kept National riding high since Key took over (they’re currently polling well over double their 2002 election result). Will Dirty Politics and Whaledump change that? I hope so, but I can’t say with confidence.
What I can say with confidence, though, is that Key’s latest accusation is the most brazen hypocrisy I’ve witnessed since I’ve been following NZ politics.
Post-script (21 August):
Here’s the updated first graph now that National finally have some policy (5965 words of it, to be precise):
They’ve also deleted the two documents they previously linked to, but they’ve added a whole lot of links on each of their policy pages (mostly past news stories about what they’ve done while in government, which is kind of cheating… but also some fuller policy statements). I can’t be bothered counting that up at this stage. My guess is it’s still much less than Labour and probably less than the Greens and Internet Party too (definitely if we only include policy announcements proper).
Finance Minister Bill English conceded that the Government would like to have had more New Zealand investors than the 62,000 and a higher share price than $1.50.
But he blamed in no small part Labour and Greens’ energy policy, accusing them of scaring off mum and dad investors from Mighty River Power and Meridian because of their policy to control wholesale power prices.
“They set out to sabotage lower income New Zealanders doing it. Unfortunately they’ve had some effect.”
So Bill English (yes, that’s the deputy prime minister, not your ignorant workmate) thinks poor NZers can afford to buy shares, and the only reason they aren’t buying shares in what we used to own together is that Labour and the Greens “sabotaged” their investment plans by “scaring them off.”
The most obvious explanation is that he’s trying to contort the embarrassing failure of the asset sales into being somehow the opposition’s fault.
A more worrying possibility is that he actually believes what he’s saying. This is, after all, the man who wrote off child poverty as merely “relative.”
70% of National supporters don’t know anyone who’s unemployed, so what are the odds the National deputy leader knows any “low income New Zealanders”?
As Robert McAfee Brown put it: “who we listen to determines what we hear; where we stand determines what we see.”
(Re. the title: I’m happy to be corrected)
Some world leaders according to PoliticalCompass.org (only vaguely related to this blog)
A friend who studies political science commented on Facebook in response to my last blog, saying among other things that she was (I’m paraphrasing) “confused about my determination to attribute everything to left-right frameworks.” She has a good point and I thought it deserved a good response. I wrote what turned out to be a very long response… I’ll let you decide if it was a good response.
I thought I might share it here as well, because a lot of my recent blogs have drawn quite heavily on the left-right spectrum, and I thought some other people might be interested. As always, all comments are welcome.
The truth is that we probably largely agree that the left-right framework is over-simplified etc. – likewise with the Political Compass, which is only slightly less simplistic (two spectra instead of one).
Where we might differ is: I don’t think the left-right frameworks are completely useless and thus should be thrown out completely. Or at least, I only think they can/should be thrown out by people like yourself who have the time and knowledge to look into, and analyse, each party and philosophy and candidate on their own merits – which is barely anyone. I personally don’t have the time, knowledge or brain-power to analyse everything and everyone on its own merits without any generalisations to help categorise it.
When I use the left-right framework, I partly use it as shorthand for more complex realities (I think conciseness is vital in blogging, and I struggle enough as it is here). But I partly use it with an implied audience not of people like yourself who know I’m oversimplifying things, but of people who struggle to understand politics at all. I talk to quite a lot of people who describe themselves this way, and the number may surprise you as a POLS student… this is not to say that these people are stupid, they just haven’t put in the necessary hours and hours of time to understand politics. With local politics this category is even larger… I think I’ve probably done more research into it than most voters (at least most young voters), but I still don’t really understand anything beyond what I wrote in my last blog.
While over-simplified, I do think the left-right spectrum touches on some truth, for example the way neo-liberalism has shifted the political ‘centre’ in NZ. You as a POLS student would have more sophisticated ways of explaining this than me, but is it completely wrong to say that neo-liberalism involves a shift to the (economic) right? I think it’s a generalisation but a generally true generalisation.
I think if someone doesn’t understand politics at all, nor how NZ parties have shifted over the years, and then they hear my (admittedly simplified) explanation of both Labour and National shifting to the right economically since the 80s, they’ve increased their understanding. I don’t want to sound superior or condescending but if some of the people who struggle to understand politics (because they have other priorities, and haven’t put in the hours and hours you and I have into politics) read my over-simplified blogs and feel they understand it a bit more, I’m glad.
I also note that a lot of polls say that the current government’s policies are unpopular, but John Key as a person is very popular. There seems to be a disconnect from understanding the political realities and trends and philosophies that certain parties stand for (consciously or unconsciously), and the kind of policies they are likely to enact because of it. So if I can help to slightly decrease this disconnect, I’m glad too.
It’s partly my personality… I know a lot of people don’t like generalisations, but I do like them, as I feel that they can help us gain some kind of understanding of the patterns of how the world works. Even if they’re over-simplified, which they inevitably are, I think it’s still better than just seeing the world as random chaos and not having any grasp of the patterns at all.
I don’t think everything should be attributed to the left-right spectrum, and if what I write sounds like I’m doing that, it’s because I like to write in an extreme style, and I like to point out what I don’t think is being pointed out enough. It’s my impression that what’s pointed out a lot at the moment is personalities, individual quirks etc, but what’s not pointed out enough (in my experience) is the patterns and the groups of individuals that tend to believe certain things and do certain things.
It’s a bit like people saying that when multinational companies do horrible things, it’s because there’s a few bad apples. But if there’s a consistent pattern that multi-national companies, in their exclusive drive to maximise profit, act in psychopathic ways (cf. The Corporation documentary – which is probably oversimplified too), I think it’s worth pointing that out.
Likewise with Marryatt’s pay-rise. People might think it’s just a few bad apple individuals on council that voted for the pay-rise. But I think it’s worth pointing out that they seem to have all been right-leaning (correct me if I’m wrong), and that the four of them who are standing again are all standing for right-leaning political groupings (I-Citz and City 1st).
There’s another reason why I stubbornly cling on to the left-right spectrum as a way of describing things. The last few decades have seen a growth of ‘post-modern’ distrust of big stories and grand theories, and part of this is the growth of what has been called a ‘post-political’ and ‘post-ideological’ mindset, where we don’t like politicians to be tied to any big ideas, our politicians claim to be ‘pragmatic’ rather than ideological, and supposedly all the big grand narratives of religion, nationalism, communism etc. are dead.
But what this obscures is that there is in fact one ‘narrative’ that is far from dead. Capitalism (and consumerism, free markets, commodification, inequality etc) is more globally dominant than ever before, and it no longer needs a big narrative to support it – in fact it’s supported precisely by the post-modern turn from big theories to individual feelings and individual consumption. (You could also say that social liberalism/individualism is a narrative that is extremely powerful in the West, but I’d say that capitalism is more globally dominant – cf. China combining capitalism with social authoritarianism and doing it even ‘better’ than the countries who combine capitalism with democracy).
Paralleling this, in political science (from my outside perspective) there seems to be a movement towards seeing the old left-right frameworks as inadequate and seeing people who ‘still’ use them as out of touch. But again, I think this can potentially obscure real political phenomena like neo-liberalism, especially if you don’t replace my over-simplified ‘shifting to the right economically’ explanation with a better and more accurate explanation that is still accessible to non-POLS students.
So my question is what should we replace the left-right spectrum with? I think I’d be happy to abandon the left-right spectrum (and the political compass two-spectrum model) if I saw that there was a better alternative. I’m very happy to be corrected and educated here, but at the moment, all I see replacing the ‘old’ left-right model is A) from academics: complex theories that are inaccessible to most people, B) from politicians: cynical obscuring of the real political realities they represent. I’d rather have an ‘old-fashioned’ model that can be understood and engaged with than intentional or unintentional obscurantism that contributes to lack of understanding and apathy.
My preferred candidate…
1. I’m hearing a narrative from a few friends about Shearer being a nice guy betrayed by his MPs. I think this has it partly right but is largely missing the point. Shearer was betrayed first and foremost by the faction in caucus who put him in power – commonly known as the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) clique. They knew the wider party membership and affiliated unions wanted to move the party back to the left, and overwhelmingly supported Cunliffe. But they rallied behind the obscure and inexperienced Shearer instead.
It would take a charismatic political genius with a compelling vision to win over a party when you’ve been made their leader as a big fat F-you to its members. And it would take the same qualities to be a real match for Key. Shearer may be a nice guy but he’s certainly not a charismatic political genius with a compelling vision. Whatever truth there is to media speculations about Cunliffe and/or Robertson undermining Shearer, I don’t blame Labour MPs for being frustrated as Shearer mumbled and stumbled and bumbled for the last 20 months.
Fortunately, at last year’s party conference the
grassroots members party successfully voted in a more democratic method of electing the leader – 40% current MPs, 40% party members, 20% affiliated union members (the ABC clique, not surprisingly, opposed this). It’s currently being implemented for the first time. So whoever the next leader is, he (they’re all hes) will have one major advantage over Shearer – the perception that he was chosen by the whole party. (This is also why Shearer should have called for an election on the new system directly after the conference… coming off his successful housing speech and showing courage and respect for the members, he just might have won his job back and a proper mandate to go with it).
2. The other narrative about Labour being crippled by infighting and struggling desperately in the polls is also quite misleading I think. Gordon Campbell and Frank Macskasy point out that division is normal for a major party in opposition and National’s in no position to judge. It’s worth comparing Labour now to National’s last era in opposition – note also election results and methods of changing leaders…
3. I support Cunliffe for the leadership. If Labour et al want to defeat Key in 2014, they’ll need to do exactly what Shearer couldn’t do: Articulate a coherent and attractive vision, clearly point out how the Key government is failing New Zealand, and offer a genuine and compelling alternative. While Robertson, Jones and Cunliffe are all more charismatic and articulate than Shearer (and probably have better music taste), Cunliffe has the edge on coherent vision and genuine alternative. Of the three, Cunliffe has been the most clear about returning the party to its Labour roots, and opposing the shameful slide to inequality that all our governments since the 80s have tolerated (Clark) or actively promoted (Lange, Bolger, Key).
But I’m not getting my hopes too high. Cunliffe’s not the messiah, and sometimes he’s a naughty boy. He’s still only centre-left (if that) while Key is hard right. Plus, if he’s leader he still has to deal with a caucus full of dead wood, many of whom seem happy with the neo-liberal consensus, even though it’s crippling NZ’s health and their party’s credibility. And he’d have to find a finance minister who’s competent and on the same page (preferably Russell Norman).
I’ll still probably vote Mana as I want to support more radical critiques of the capitalist status quo. But if the next Labour government can end this National one, shift the centre slightly back towards equality, and do something about our horrendous child poverty problem, I think that’s a good thing.
PS: Best source of info and the range of opinion about all of this: Bryce Edwards’ political round-ups.
Even Christian Right radio have reported this.
So why are Stuff ignoring it?
Instead they’ve only reported their own poll the next day. The results showed a more modest leftward shift (National down 1.1%, Labour down 0.3%, Greens up 1.1%, NZ First down 0.4%). But the reporting emphasises Labour’s failure to increase its support, and National’s resilience to maintain its support! They also speculate about future woes for Labour, heap praise on the Conservative party and don’t mention the Greens’ rise.
Why does poll reporting matter? In 2011 we had the lowest election turn-out since the 1880s after the media told us constantly for 3 years that John Key was wildly popular and the election was a no-contest.
It’s been obvious for a while that Stuff loves John Key as much as Cut Your Hair
hates fundamentally disagrees with him. But you could have attributed that to an uncritical, stupid, lowest-common-denominator corporate ‘political’ media caring more for cults of personality than politics.
(PS: Even with their bias, Stuff seem quite critical of the GCSB bill, and their poll shows three-quarters of us are worried about it.
PPS: With one-seat majorities for such important legislation, the election definitely wasn’t a no-contest.)