Labour needs a new strategy
Mon, 18 Aug 2008 12:00a.m.
From the Government's point of view, it might be a good idea to stop talking about the National Party.
The uproar stoked up over the secret tapes, claimed by Labour as evidence of National's secret agenda, doesn't seem to have registered with voters.
The Fairfax Media-Nielsen opinion poll published on Saturday showed National coasting along with a 19-point lead, much the same as it has held in most surveys this year.
It was on 54 percent support against Labour's 35 percent, and the poll captured the period since National's annual conference and the row over the recordings of Bill English and Lockwood Smith talking about what the party might do if it won the election.
National's leader, John Key, thinks there might have been a negative reaction to Labour's strategy of using the tapes to attack his party.
And he could be right when he says it might have been perceived as a piece of parliamentary theatre, with no direct impact on anyone outside it.
"It doesn't affect their daily lives...the economy is still front and centre stage," said Key.
He has said that before, pushing the message that voters aren't interested in sideshows and would like politicians to get on with debating issues that do affect their daily lives.
Like interest rates, the rising level of unemployment and the economic slowdown.
If the secret agenda assault really isn't working, Labour is going to lose one of its main campaign weapons - persuading voters that they can't trust National in government because it might inflict on them the sort of drastic and unpopular changes that marked the early 1990s.
Key is acutely aware of this tactic, to the extent that he has vowed to resign as Prime Minister and quit Parliament if superannuation is tampered with under his watch.
And in another counter move last week, he said National would legislate to ensure benefits increased in line with inflation.
They do now, but there isn't a law that says they have to.
Key is trying to neutralise Labour's "you can't trust National" strategy, which worked in 2005 when it came out with its "don't risk throwing it all away" slogan.
The way things are going, it won't work twice. Voters don't seem to be taking any notice of Labour's warnings, they might be waiting to hear something real about how the Government is going to help them through the hard times many are experiencing.
National's confidence was reflected in its candidate list released at the weekend.
It has named 73 candidates with seven newcomers in the top 50. Some of them have leapfrogged sitting MPs, a situation which can cause a fair amount of strife.
It hasn't, because any MP in the top 50 knows they are safe, and all 43 of them are, says party president Judy Kirk.
Candidate lists only cause problems when a party is facing losing MPs at an election, not when it can confidently expect to gain more of them.
National has 48 in the present Parliament and 43 of them are standing again. The other five - Katherine Rich, Clem Simich, Bob Clarkson, Brian Connell and Mark Blumsky - are calling it quits.
So with 43 MPs to look after it was easy to bring in seven new faces in the top 50.
Kirk says that on current polling National could expect to win 60 or 61 seats, although she isn't taking that for granted.
With this potential abundance of places at its disposal, National has embarked on a diversification policy.
It is discarding its old image of white middle-aged MPs, nearly all of them men.
There are 17 women in its top 60 for this year's election and it is using the rankings to make sure that representatives of ethnic minorities are elected.
Sam Lotu-liga, its Maungakiekie candidate, is ranked at 35 and Kanwal Bakshi, who is standing in Manukau East, is at 38. Both are sure to be elected through the party list, regardless of the outcome of their electorate contests. Melissa Lee, a Korean TV broadcaster, is a list only candidate ranked 37.
Kirk says she's showing the party is putting its money where its mouth is by ensuring these candidates get into Parliament.
She also admits that gaining votes in south Auckland, which is where Labour won the last election, has something to do with this strategy.
"I went to Maungakiekie, there was a fund-raiser there, and there were about 300 people," Kirk told reporters when she released the list.
"About 200 of them were Pacific Islanders. That wouldn't have happened in the National Party 10 years ago."
There were no surprises in the list, and rumours that John Tamihere, Michael Jones and lawyer Judith Ablett-Kerr might be there were wrong.
National's line-up has a sensible look about it, and it's interesting that two party-hoppers, Stephen Franks and Marc Alexander, who respectively quit ACT and United Future after they lost their seats, have been ranked at 60 and 61.
That's right on the edge of an outright majority in a 120-member Parliament, assuming overhang doesn't adds any more seats.
There's no precedent for either of the main parties winning an outright majority under MMP, although National's poll rating suggests there is a possibility this time.
Kirk says it's going to be a fight, right down to the wire, and the decision to name 73 candidates was to cover all eventualities.
What the party has ensured is that there will be a significant number of new faces on its benches, even if it doesn't add many seats to the 48 it holds now.
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