Politics

Inside the campaigns: how National took the migrant and rural vote

We’ve asked people who worked on the major parties’ campaigns to write about their experiences and observations after election 2017. First up: Jenna Raeburn, a PR consultant who worked on the National campaign, detailing life on the big blue bus.

If you live in the centre of a big city you could be forgiven for thinking the Jacinda effect was real.

In the universities, the rallies, the huge crowds, and your Facebook feed, the mood for change was palpable. Something Very Big was going on and we all knew it.  

But in the rest of the country an entirely different election was playing out. The Jacinda effect did not reach South and West Auckland, and it certainly never showed up in regional New Zealand.

I was on the National Party campaign bus from 27 August to 22 September. We travelled more than 8000 kilometres and worked dawn til dusk in every corner of the country. We visited 52 electorates. There would hardly be a stretch of SH1 or SH2 north of Christchurch that we didn’t touch.

From the front seat of the bus, and on the street in every small town, it was obvious two parallel games were being played: one in the cities and one in the regions.

Meanwhile, Labour was also failing its traditional voter base of migrants and workers. As it turned out, they couldn’t win the election with young people, women, urban liberals and students alone. They needed middle New Zealand and middle New Zealand did not turn up for them.

What went wrong?

The first thing that struck me within a few hours of the bus setting off was the enormous swathes of the countryside where Labour is nowhere to be found.

The rural urban divide is real. You could drive for hours across the South Island without seeing any sign of the Labour Party, while every farmer in Canterbury had big, defiant National signs beaming down from their pivot irrigation towers.

In the North Island, the Labour campaign was non-existent in entire regions. Labour’s highest ranked candidate across the Waikato, Rangitikei and Taranaki is number 36, and that’s in Hamilton, a provincial city, not a rural area. The others are ranked 42, 55, 57, 60, 63, 64, 69, 70 and 75. This says all you need to know about how seriously they were taking that part of the world.

Some sheep next to the National coach. (Image: supplied)

Rural people everywhere were completely baffled by the Jacinda effect, the apparent “mood for change”, the big crowds. What they saw on the television did not compute at all with their experience of the Labour Party.  

“I don’t get it,” was the most common refrain from the farmers, the kiwifruit growers, the workers. “I’m terrified,” was the next.

A young, tattooed Māori guy called Scott flagged the bus down in Hokitika to tell us he was voting for National because he has big plans for his own dairy farm. A horde of farmers’ kids chased the bus across their school field in Piopio until we stopped to chat. I was the next best thing to Santa’s elf since I came from the National Party. They followed me around like the Pied Piper until it was time to go.

Make no mistake about it, Labour gave up on regional New Zealand during this campaign, with the exception of one or two standout candidates (Kiri Allen and Jo Luxton come to mind, along with Labour’s only regional stalwarts, Damien O’Connor and Stuart Nash). Their talk of water taxes, bringing farming into the ETS, and unclear positions on capital gains and land taxes went down like a bucket of warm sick in rural communities. It was only a matter of time before the provinces began to rebel.

Labour either didn’t have enough people on the ground to pick up on this before it was too late, or (worse) they deliberately cast rural New Zealand aside in the hope they could win enough votes in the big cities to make up for it.

But their disdain for the provinces affected them in the cities too. New Zealanders know where their food comes from. They also know what keeps the economy ticking along. The rural disquiet, while dismissed by Labour’s base, got swing voters questioning whether Labour really knew what they were doing with the economy at all. That’s before anyone even mentioned the infamous $11.7 billion or ads about tax.

Todd McLay fans at play (image: supplied)

Before you cry “But of course Labour is weak in the bluest seats!” allow me a comparison. The National campaign was most vibrant in South and West Auckland, Labour’s traditional strongholds. Our candidates turned out hordes of supporters from diverse ethnic communities, thanks to awesome and underrated campaigners like Kanwal Bakshi and Agnes Loheni.  If you used “number of active volunteers” as a proxy for National’s popularity, you’d think these were the bluest areas, along with Auckland Central, Wellington Central and Hutt South [ed’s disclosure: the author’s partner, Chris Bishop, won Hutt South].

National dominated in rural communities but stemmed the tide in Auckland as well. We campaigned for everyone, everywhere, all the time. We worked hard in rural seats but hardest in marginal and red seats. The rural-urban divide existed for Labour, but it didn’t for us.    

Along with the regions, South and West Auckland saved the National Party. If you don’t believe me, look at Gwynn Compton’s very good analysis of the seats where National increased its share of the party vote: Māngere, Te Atatu, Manurewa, New Lynn, Manukau East… There is no escaping it. The Labour Party, despite its resurgence, despite the Jacinda Effect, lost votes in its core territory.

The one thing these electorates have in common is their very large migrant populations.

In the regions as well, the biggest crowds who turned up to campaign were groups of new migrants and first-generation New Zealanders. I challenge anyone to go back in time 10 years and find a crowd of 100+ Sikh migrants waving signs for the National Party in Te Puke. It just wouldn’t happen. But it’s happening today.

National has painstakingly built relationships with ethnic communities. The Party is a broad church and anyone who still stereotypes National as a group of white septuagenarians hasn’t been paying attention.  

It’s reached the point now where Labour isn’t even invited to cultural events Helen Clark used to attend every year.

When did they lose touch with migrants so badly? I suspect the defection of Sonny Kaushal from Labour to National had something to do with it, though this seems more like a symptom than a cause. And in Chinese communities, the “Chinese sounding surnames” debacle has no doubt had a long and lasting impact.

I’ll remember this lesson forever: you can’t be the largest political party unless you appeal to a broad cross-section of New Zealanders. You can’t govern for one part of the country and ignore the rest. This goes for ethnic groups but for the regions as well. Labour didn’t resonate outside of very limited demographic groups and urban areas.

The biggest problem with the Jacinda effect was that it never made it past the doors.

By this I mean Labour held fewer, larger, planned events surrounded by crowds of adoring supporters. These were advertised in advance, which means it’s the people who already like you that are most likely to show up.

These events made great TV and certainly created the impression of a resurgent and popular Labour Party. But their reach into communities of undecided voters was low.

Bill’s approach was the complete opposite. His days were full of business visits, where he’d always make sure to talk to workers individually; interspersed with café visits and street walks. These weren’t publicly advertised so he would literally just bowl up to a café full of unsuspecting customers and go around getting everyone’s life story.

Bill English’s strength is in personal interactions. He listens, cares, takes the time and wins people over. While Jacinda was speaking to crowds of four or five hundred, Bill was picking them off one by one in provincial cafes.

Neither style of campaigning is wrong. Both were suited to their respective leaders and the goals of their parties. But ultimately I’m sure it meant Bill had more authentic interactions with individual, undecided voters than Jacinda did.

I’m sure he also spent more time in the regions. On the way in to Rotorua one morning I was watching the New Zealand First bus interrupt Jacinda Ardern’s live Facebook feed at a Rotorua café. Great, I thought. Three parties in town at once, big day for Rotorua! But ten minutes later, a Labour car zipped past us on its way out of town, Jacinda was gone, and we never crossed paths.

This pattern of flying visits to regional centres continued for Labour. Meanwhile, we were breaking our backs every day to squeeze in as many visits as we possibly could in each electorate. Bill was going non-stop.

On the campaign bus. The author, Jenna Raeburn, pictured to Bill English’s right (image: instagram)

There is no doubt National won this campaign because of Bill. He gave his all every day and his personality shone through. He debated his heart out in the leaders’ debates and grew in energy and confidence day by day. He singlehandedly turned National’s fortunes around in the face of the Labour resurgence, staring down poor poll results and returning a decisive victory few people would have predicted at the beginning of September.

Those polls never seemed quite right to me. Around 7 September, when the Colmar Brunton poll had Labour on 43 and National on 39, I was somewhere in the North Island between Taupō and New Plymouth. I noticed our driver, Gary, was giving a little wave to truckies and bus drivers on their way past.

“It’s a common courtesy thing for drivers, you give each other a wave,” he said.

“Usually it’s just half a hand off the wheel. But pretty much every driver who comes past is giving a huge wave and a thumbs up to the blue bus.”

Interesting, I thought. Truckies and bus drivers must be a pretty good proxy for Labour’s working, male, traditional voter base. If we have them on side, can we really be behind?  

This carried on throughout the country. Gary reported positive feedback from the bus depots, the post office, the gas stations. The rest of us got the same in the cafés, supermarkets, on the street talking to voters. We started to think we were nuts. Where was the vaunted Jacinda effect? Why had we not experienced it yet?

I worried we were operating in a provincial bubble, that we hadn’t spent enough time in Auckland and Wellington to be fully aware of the Labour campaign. I also worried we were getting “false positive” reactions. People like Bill, I reasoned. There isn’t any strong negativity toward National, we haven’t alienated too many people. Maybe they like Jacinda better and will vote for her. But they’re still polite to us, which is why it feels like we’re ahead.

But by September 15, I was standing on the side of the road in Lower Hutt waving National Party signs with a group of volunteers. We must have seen 300 guys in high vis driving vans or trucks – truckies, tradies, migrants, workers. Fully 295 of them were honking and waving and calling out in support.

After that I was confident National would win. Labour still hasn’t figured out a way to win back the Waitakere Man. In fact, they have gone backwards. In addition to losing migrants, this is the reason they have lost party votes in South and West Auckland. Even in the liberal central city suburbs, I strongly suspect Labour has picked up votes from women but not from men.

This is a real dilemma for them. How do they grow their support among urban liberal women and conservative working men at the same time?

They face a similar problem in the regions. How can Labour retain the green, urban liberal vote in the big cities but woo back those truckies and tradies in rural New Zealand?

New caucus members like Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson, along with their new intake of regional MPs, may have the answer. Labour sure as hell won’t be the largest party in Parliament until they figure it out.

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