During the last election, according to Jim Anderton, Labour’s strategists decided that they needed to concentrate on turning out the Auckland, Pasifika and Maori vote in order to beat the Key government. Jim spoke to Goff and convinced him that Labour had to include the provinces in that mix.
In 1999 Labour held 14 of the 28 provincial seats, National held 12 and the Greens and NZ First one each. In 2002 Labour held 16 to National’s 11 and NZ First one. By 2008, Labour had lost all but Palmerston North and in 2011 Damien O’Conner had managed to win back West Coast.
So what went wrong in seats like New Plymouth (1999 Labour majority 15,092), Napier (1999 majority 11,863), Invercargill (1999 majority 7,990), Tukituki (1999 majority 8,646) and many others? Sure, there were boundary changes, but you can’t blame that on the provincial massacre Labour suffered.
What happened is that National took the provinces seriously and implemented a strategy that saw a number of good candidates work extremely hard with huge support from the centre. This, mixed with Labour’s complacency, saw many so-called safe seats fall.
While we all know that its ‘about the party vote’, what a number of those who don’t live in the provinces fail to understand is that an effective local MP who is seen out and about representing the party in a high profile way has the ability to maximise the party vote in a way that a candidate who arrives three months before the election simply can’t.
In Auckland if you hold your breath at midnight and drive really fast, you can cross 10 electorate s before you start turning blue. No matter who holds a particular electorate, chances are either a Labour and/or National MP will turn up to represent their party at an important occasion.
In the provinces, there is only one show in town and that is the local MP. And in conservative provincial NZ name recognition is very important. In Napier, for example, during the local body campaign, the highest polling candidate didn’t even put up a billboard, but was top of the pile due to the fact he is a long serving councilor with fantastic name recognition.
Of course turning out the Auckland vote is vital if a party wants to win an election, however, so is turning out the provincial vote. Campaigning is different, issue advocacy is different as are the issues themselves. It is almost impossible not to run a two-tick campaign because there is no other game in town.
Provincial electorates also represent heartland New Zealand. No matter what anyone in Auckland says, two-thirds of NZ’s economy is still based around primary industries. If any party only holds seats in Akld, Wgtn, Chch and Dunedin, then they don’t have a particularly wide mandate to govern because they haven’t got MPs in caucus putting forward the views of the vast majority of geographic NZ.
The fact that David Cunliffe has taken the Regional Development portfolio, and Shane Jones the Economic Development portfolio shows that Labour takes the issue of provincial health and well-being very seriously.
I am beginning to see National make the same mistakes that Labour made in 2002 – 2005. A creeping complacency that a number of excellent Labour candidates will be in a good position to take advantage of in 2014. Whanganui, Otaki and Wairarapa are three seats that stand out, and I firmly believe my own Napier electorate will return to Labour next year as well.
In fact, I predict that in 2017, Labour will, once again, hold more provincial seats than National.
Only when Labour starts winning back provincial NZ, however, will it truly be able to maximise its party vote.