Cover Story : Pucker Up Baby, It’s Election Time! – Managing democracy

The first rule about elections is that they must be managed. They cannot be left to voters.
Even the date must be managed. Prime Ministers cling to the vestige of monarchical power which they have misappropriated – the power to determine when your election is held.
Elections could be on regular fixed date, as in the United States, Germany – and New South Wales and Victoria. When New Zealand emerges from its long royal tutelage, there will be fixed dates here, too.
In any case the managing starts long before the date is set. The state machinery redraws the electorate boundaries, purges and updates the rolls, apportions the taxpayer contribution to television advertising, appoints returning officers and fixes polling places.
And the party machines set out to manage public opinion. That is now near-continuous but the pace and intensity pick up in election year.
Managing public opinion is serious and sophisticated business. It is also serendipitous and sophistic business. That’s because the customers are like no others and the product is like no other.
Pollsters and political scientists spend lot of time and effort trying to distil out what voter-customers want to buy with their taxes – or think they should get for “free”.
Political parties mine voter-customers’ minds, too: the extent and depth depends on party size and funds. Getting elected is not cheap. Democracy may have lot to do with free speech but it doesn’t come free.
That makes parties’ management task more complex. party isn’t regular business, with defined product and only shareholders, bankers and customers (and, if they feel like it, workers) to satisfy, the first and second with profits made from the third. party must satisfy multiple stakeholders.
A party’s “shareholders” are its subscription-paying members, some of whom are workers canvassing by phone and on the ground and getting the vote out on election day. They expect something in return, varying from satisfaction at having their crowd in power, to specific policy wishes. Party bosses upset the members at their peril.
National found that out in Sir Robert Muldoon’s later years and again when reforming Ruth Richardson was rampant. The membership melted. Labour found it out in the divisive Roger Douglas years. The Alliance split over Jim Anderton’s leadership. Many Greens deserted when it was member-party of the Alliance.
A party’s “bankers” are its big funders – big business, big lobbies, big unions and deep-pockets individuals. It also has “depositors”, the buyers of raffle tickets and small donors. And it has casual tribal affiliates, people who identify with the party, even if not motivated to give money or time.
The party leadership upsets any of these groups at its peril. Once party loyalties lasted lifetime. Since the 1980s loyalty is much thinner thread. Droves of National sympathisers voted Labour in 1987. The money followed them.
Even MPs drift around parties. Stephen Franks, National’s Wellington Central candidate, migrated from the far left fringe in his youth through membership of the Labour party to the economic right as an ACT MP and now to National as would-be MP.
The decline of loyalty reflected the greater complexity of society as the old “social cleavage” between workers and bosses blurred from the 1960s on as the economy diversified and became less factory-oriented, as tertiary education spread and as baby boomers worshipped individualism.
So big parties’ leaders have focused more on what they divine to be the “values” of the majority than on ideology bred from sectional interest. Ideology was fixed. Values are adjustable. National has demonstrated that this year in accepting wide range of government policies it initially opposed.
While cabinet ministers will usually assert they are guided by principles, they apply them flexibly and sometimes not at all. Government nowadays is more managerial, less concerned with what is in accord with party’s tradition than with what works.
What works comes in two forms: what achieves policy outcome; and what locks in votes by meeting voter-customers’ wants. challenge for modern government is the expectation government services and politics will be customised, just as they expect goods and services they buy in the private sector to be customised.
When these customer-voters don’t get what they want from one lot of managers they go elsewhere.
The trick for party leaders when in government is to generate the equivalent of loyalty cards, complete with rewards.
So, for example, Labour will, in the coming campaign, detail long list of services, handouts and concessions to constituencies ranging from arts organisations to wage workers to pensioners to “identity groups” such as gays.
Small parties can also get in on this loyalty rewards act: Winston Peters is adept at claiming concessions for his “seniors” constituency. United Future claims tax improvements and its Families Commission. The Greens will talk up energy efficiency, waste control, flexible working hours, public transport, clean slate rules, tight rules on genetic modification – not so much rewards in money terms as moral wins its core supporters feel good about.
The feel-good dimension is not confined to the fringes. government and its big-party challenger must market national interest ingredient if it wants long-term loyalty.
A party must also market trust. The destruction of trust by Muldoon (the “socialist” National leader) and Douglas (the “new right” Labour reformer) severed loyalties. It took Helen Clark’s centrist management to rebuild Labour trust. National has regained its trust only under John Key.
Trust in politics is delivering the goods. When in Australia’s 2004 election campaign an electorally powerful allegation John Howard had made in the 2001 campaign was proved to have been fabricated, he nevertheless won an increased majority. The question voter-customers asked themselves was not whether he lied but whether he was managing the show okay.
So parties, like businesses, invest in brand.
Small parties usually have clear, self-defined brands. Their challenge is to get the brand noticed by their target markets – they sell at the boutique end of politics – and to fend off influences that corrupt the brand.
Peter Dunne was originally Mr Commonsense-in-the-middle, brand ignored until the 2002 election when middling voters looking for way to leg-rope Labour as National’s vote disintegrated suddenly noticed it. But the evangelicals Dunne brought in with him redefined his United Future party after the election as Christian in many people’s eyes – not at all middling. ACT the party of libertarian economics in 1996 was by 1999 conflated with MP Rodney Hide’s self-promotion as “perk buster”. Both have struggled to recover recognition for, and then buyers of, their original brands. They are in the margins of politics.
New Zealand First’s brand is in its title: suspicion of too much foreign influence and too many foreign immigrants. For time it pitched to moderate National-
sympathisers who disliked right-wing economics and to Maori annoyed with Labour, but both have moved on. Now it is barely distinguishable from Peters’ own brand, fact recognised in the party establishing website devoted to him. When Peters goes, the party will go.
In the campaign New Zealand First will promise to work to extend this term’s gains: it has list of five specifics aimed principally at older folk who are its mainstay. Campaign manager Damian Edwards is determined Peters will not peak too early, as he did in 2005.
The Greens have well-established brand as defenders of the environment. Their challenge has been to remain distinct and relevant as the big old parties have muscled in, yet also to avoid being parked out on the fringe – voters loyal to the environment brand are probably no more than three percent.
The Greens’ campaign manager, Gary Reese, see an opportunity this election to broaden the

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