In this first of a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Stardust and Substance, which is published tomorrow, the now prime minister recounts her unexpected elevation to the leadership and the remarkable events that followed.
There is no doubt that 2017 will remain the most extraordinary year of my life. But a statement like that doesn’t quite capture the fact that what happened this year had layers that extended well beyond me. In that sense, before I go any further I want to acknowledge three people in particular. The first two are Andrew Kirton and Nigel Haworth. I see the president and especially the general secretary of our party as often the unsung heroes. Their work is unrelenting. They manage and motivate thousands of volunteers, manage our governing body, and ensure we have the funds to run our campaigns in the first place. I salute them.
The third person I want to acknowledge won’t surprise you. That person is Andrew Little. Andrew became leader after a rocky election for Labour in 2014. It’s fair to say our stocks were low and so was our morale. He had an unrelenting focus on turning that around. His first job was to unite our caucus. No one disputes that he did that, and he did it incredibly well. I believe we were in the position we were to make a comeback of sorts in 2017 because of the foundations he laid. But of course stability was just one part of the equation. We also had to look at what voters wanted from us as a party. What were they looking for at the 2017 election?
If we’re asking about specific issues, you can probably guess what was coming up time and time again. The public were looking for new solutions to specific, discrete problems. The origin of the problem, or who was to blame, wasn’t so much of an issue as who could fix it. Those were problems like:
- Skyrocketing house prices
- Clogged roads
- Under resourced schools and hospitals
- Degraded rivers.
When swing voters were asked how they’d like those problems to be addressed, their unprompted answers were often very close to Labour’s policy. This gave us heart that there was an underlying public appetite for the kind of government we wanted to be. But it wasn’t showing up in the numbers.
Yes, the combined support for parties-of-change was at competitive levels in the pre-campaign period, but Labour’s relatively small share of that vote was making it hard for us to demand the attention of the rest of the swing electorate. This made for a tough period. We were resolute, united, focused on policy and ideas, but by June and July Labour was polling in the mid-20s and falling. In fact, I remember specifically the crunch point, and since then both Andrew and I have spoken about it.
It was the 26th of July. I remember because it was my birthday. I started the day by speaking at the Tawa Rotary Club. Later that day Andrew and I both attended a meeting with Weta and Park Road Post. During the course of that meeting we both received the same message. It was an update on our internal polling and it wasn’t good. We were heading to the low 20s.
I remember getting back to the office, and because we hadn’t had a chance to speak privately, I messaged Andrew with something Pollyanna in nature. As I was preparing for Question Time he asked to see me. He was worried about the polls and openly canvassed with me what we should do – that was just the kind of leader he was. During his time considering what to do my view remained the same, and that was that he should stay. In my mind he had brought us solid leadership and stability, and I was loath to risk that.
Many will know what followed – a short period of consideration with a One News poll in between which added further pressure. Andrew gave an interview in response, in which he spoke frankly about how hard the decline in the polls had been, and that he had considered whether he should continue in the job. Much has been made of that interview. My view of it is rather more simplistic. He spoke honestly. That in itself had consequences though. By Monday my electorate office was being staked out by journalists. They wanted to know if I was loyal to Andrew and if there was a move against him.
Andrew has spoken candidly about that period. The decision he made was his. Yes, the odd caucus member may have shared a view with him, as I did when I argued for him to stay. But ultimately this was always a decision for Andrew and Andrew alone.
It was Tuesday morning when I packed my bag for a usual week in parliament. I was in the car travelling from Wellington airport to parliament when I got a call indicating Andrew would stand down, and roughly an hour or two later he did just that.
Some have asked me about my decision to run as leader. That implies there was time for that. There was simply an expectation and one that I fully understood. So at roughly 10.30 a.m. on the 1st of August I walked into caucus and was made leader of the New Zealand Labour Party.
There is much that could be analysed over that period – but I would offer this. From the moment Andrew resigned he came back into that caucus room to nominate me. He offered me nothing but support and welfare check-ins through the whole campaign. He didn’t disappear; instead, he worked. People often interpret politicians as being where they are in order to pursue their own personal position and ambitions. Andrew is living proof that that is not always true.
And the reason I keep sharing detail around that period is so that the history books will tell that story.
But fast forward to approximately two hours after the change in leadership, and we had a massive job ahead of us. Whether we knew it or not at the time, the campaign had just begun. It would be both long and short. Long in the sense that it would mean a seven-week campaign. Short in the sense that those seven weeks would also have to include designing the campaign itself. In saying that, I don’t want to undermine the considerable work that had been done leading up to that point to design a campaign plan, film ads and everything else that comes with it. But the pure practicalities of Andrew and I being on the billboards, and in the ads, basically meant there was no choice. We were starting again.
Some may assume that such a redesign would take weeks of creative work. Rightly or wrongly, I had set a different deadline. During our press conference immediately after the leadership change I gave us 72 hours. Three short days to consider the campaign plan, the key policy platform; basically the major components of the campaign. This proved both a blessing and a curse. Interestingly, when I reflect back on those 72 hours, much was decided on day one. Not just day one, but hour one. It was in that first press conference that we laid the foundation for our campaign.
First came the notion of how we would campaign. We knew that some potential supporters perceived us to be too negative. I see this as nothing more than an unfortunate consequence of nine years of opposition – eventually you become the brand. I was determined to challenge that. I knew that my colleagues were driven by the hope of what we could be, not the frustration of what we weren’t. It was time to focus on that optimism that brought us into politics, and I wanted to do that with “relentless positivity”.
Next came the issues we would focus on. Here I hark back to what we as a team already knew – that when you tested the ideas we had with the public, there was enthusiasm. New leadership did not diminish or change the concerns people had around housing, our rivers, or our health and education system. I indicated that instead of making massive changes to the policy platform, we would instead put emphasis on certain areas – and we did.
And finally, there was the issue of the slogan. I remember angsting over this. Initially I felt like we needed to capture everything we wanted to stand for and achieve in one snappy statement – an impossible and clumsy proposition. Midway through our 72 hours, while I was debating slogans with copious use of words like ‘future’, I got a text from a journalist asking whether we were going to adopt the slogan “Let’s do this”. I laughed – that didn’t have any of my lofty aspirations contained within it. Why would we sell ourselves short with so few syllables? I even remember telling Kelvin Davis, who replied, “I actually quite like that slogan.” Which got me thinking.
There are a number of political figures of yesteryear that I admire. Norman Kirk is one of them. In 1972 Kirk campaigned with the simple slogan of “It’s time”. When I heard that, something changed in the way I saw those simple words: “Let’s do this”. Then someone pointed out to me again that the first social media post I made after becoming leader had these words: “Yesterday was not quite what I was expecting. Overwhelmed by the wonderful messages and the possibility. Let’s do this.”
Those simple three words captured the urgency of what we had in front of us, but also the huge potential. There was positivity, hope and inclusiveness in a call to action that was just so simple. When, as coincidence would have it, a small group of creative friends got together separately to throw around ideas and designs and came back with the same slogan, it essentially became a done deal.
But one of our biggest challenges in our rebrand was to create a new advertising campaign. Our campaign had an existing set of TV ads already filmed and playing online, but they weren’t suitable for re-cutting for the new campaign. We needed new hoardings, new advertising for TV, radio, and online platforms, new direct mail, and new street posters. We wanted all our advertising to project the energy we felt, we wanted quick cut-through, and we wanted to be innovative. And of course we needed it quickly. Thousands of hoardings were already up around the country; they needed to be replaced quickly before any of our volunteers came up with creative solutions. And the first TV ads were booked to air just three weeks after I became leader. Despite those tight deadlines, I was proud of the results. We achieved our goals of projecting positivity, energy and innovation though our ad campaign, and we included a few firsts for New Zealand political advertising along the way:
- We made extensive use of Facebook Live events, including a weekly public question-and-answer session with me.
- We used our campaign launch at the Auckland Town Hall as a backdrop for our TV ads, which really helped project the enthusiasm and energy that we wanted to propel through the campaign.
- We ran targeted, customized video ads over YouTube and Facebook, working hard to make sure the ad someone saw was the most relevant to their lives.
- We ran ads in places that were specific to their context, for example running advertising about our plans for Auckland public transport during radio reports about current traffic in Auckland.
And we did all of it without breaching any laws!
But while our broadcast campaign was how we reached most voters in an impersonal way, the daily campaign events were how we interacted with voters directly, and they also served as the backdrop for our appearances in the news media. In every corner of the country I visited, I was struck by the energy our campaign had ignited – from the Māngere town square to a walkabout in Invercargill. Some commentators gave that feeling a title. I never really bought into that. I don’t believe movements are ever about one person – they are about a mood, a sentiment, and an opportunity. It was about New Zealanders seeing a real possibility for a fairer, more optimistic future for the country. My goal was to try and channel that, and respond to it.
But all of that probably implies that we are able to determine the course of a campaign single-handedly. Of course that’s not the case. National ran a strong, professional campaign, and Bill English ran a very good campaign personally. They put their best foot forward in emphasizing the good things about New Zealand while at the same time implying that a change in government would put those things at risk. They relied on broadcast messages that had served them well in prior campaigns, and in my opinion put in a good showing at all of the debates we participated in.
In my view, this election was an example of a good genuine contest of ideas, with one exception – the hole. I understand why National wanted to go in this direction – this is politics and historically some centre-left parties have been seen as weak on the economy. But they went further than that, suggesting we would increase income taxes when we’d explicitly promised to leave income tax rates exactly where they were. And of course they repeatedly referenced a non-existent $11.7 billion fiscal hole in our budget.
Did it work? It is hard to know. I do think the references made around tax raised doubts in people’s minds, perhaps just enough to make some of those who may have considered a change of government retreat. But this is politics. It may have been a tactic I wouldn’t use, or wouldn’t want my team to use, but ultimately they’re the things we always have to be prepared for.
That then leads us to the day itself. For the Labour Party, that is the point where a huge amount of on-the-ground preparation is rolled out. Labour created a phenomenal campaign of voter contact for the 2017 election. They reached massively more voters, one on one, than I could ever do as leader. More than 6,500 registered volunteers, and untold more of their friends, made over 475,000 phone calls and door knocks with our target voters. And even though these numbers were higher than we’d ever achieved before, we also moved our focus away from sheer volume of voter contact and towards high quality conversations.
Those conversations formed the backdrop to our huge election day operation, where we identified tens of thousands of likely supporters who might benefit from a gentle reminder where their polling booth was. Our volunteers had attempted to contact all of them by lunchtime, so we widened the net and generated more targets for them. They got through all those by mid-afternoon. That was community action at its finest and, in a tight election like this one, it could ultimately have been the difference between winning and losing.
Election day did not, however, culminate in an exciting and invigorating election night. The election night results weren’t what I had hoped for. And on the night, I said that. At that time the total seats for the three parties of change was 61: a majority, but a razor thin one. I doubt we would have been able to put together the government we now have with a majority that slender – in fact, I wouldn’t have. However, we knew that Labour’s on-the-night support was a touch lower than many late polls were predicting, and we knew that parties of the left tended to win more support in the special votes than in the ordinary votes. We were confident that the balance of the House would tilt left after the specials were counted. After a nervous wait for a couple of weeks, that confidence was proven right, with the left gaining two seats and the right losing two seats via the special votes. I will now continually find myself correcting people on the final percentage of the vote we won as a party – that’s 37%, for the record.
Once the uncertainty around the special votes had been resolved, and it was clear that a potential government grouping of Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens had a workable majority of 63 seats, we were able to start coalition negotiations in earnest. A lot has been said of this period – I think the simple reflection I would make is this: whether we succeeded or not, I would have always reflected on the process we went through as one that was fair, respectful and thoughtful. Win or lose, I don’t think it is unreasonable for parties potentially forming a government together to canvass their points of difference and commonality. And contrary to perception, who would take what role was left to a minor bit part in the conversation. It was exactly as it should be.
The rest really is history, and now with the most genuine MMP government we’ve ever had, it’s also up to us to make history. All in all, it’s fair to say that the 2017 election campaign made a whirlwind seem like a gentle breeze. There was huge change not limited to my own life, but in the political landscape as well.
But after the tumultuous campaign of 2017, what did voters get back from their politicians? That’s the most important thing for us to chew over looking forward from 2017 to 2020. And I’d argue that in 2017 voters got broadly what they wanted. More than half the voters cast ballots for parties that offered significant change from the previous government’s policies. And politicians delivered voters a government committed to exactly that, too. Most voters wanted new, more assertive policy solutions on issues like the housing crisis, people missing out on health care, underperforming schools, and declining water quality. And politicians delivered voters a government committed to exactly that.
I will be forever grateful for the trust the country has placed in me as prime minister. I’ll never forget the voters I met on the campaign trail – their hopes for themselves and their families, their pride about New Zealand and their concerns for its future. They carried me in my first weeks as prime minister, and they will continue to carry me for the next three years and – if the country agrees – perhaps beyond that too.
This is an edited extract from Stardust and Substance: the New Zealand General Election of 2017, ed Stephen Levine (VUP)