Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Election 2011: Head to head with Labour

Labour leader Phil Goff. Photo / APN
Labour leader Phil Goff. Photo / APN

As the 2011 election campaign begins, our political reporters examine the state of the two main parties, National and Labour

Regardless of whether the voters approve of Labour's latest policies, they should at least be enough to stun them into listening.

Labour has consistently been between 20 and 30 points behind National in the polls - and with little to lose, has apparently adopted a "shock and awe" tactic as its campaign strategy.

It has presented voters with a choice of policies conventionally considered politically unpalatable, such as raising the retirement age, compulsory super and the capital gains tax.

Labour has set out to do several things with its policy mix: take risks in the hope it will be rewarded by the voters' apparent acceptance of the need for sacrifice in the economic downturn and try to dent National's economic credibility by painting them as too cowardly to make hard decisions.

It has also unleashed several policies that take it further left from the Clark government in a bid to shore up its core support base against raids from other left-wing parties such as the Greens and, to a lesser extent, Mana.

So some left-wing commentators, recently disgruntled with Labour, breathed a sigh of relief when the party released its work and wages policy, ballasting the position of the unions and granting their wish-list of industry wide standards for wages and conditions.

The roll-outs show that Labour was using the relative down-time of Opposition to get its policy machine in order.

The results began to trundle out in earnest over the past fortnight - some quietly, such as the same-sex adoption policy - and others with a bang, such as this week's superannuation policy.

In their advertising, the party's strategists have targeted specific policy areas of most traction - opposing National's partial state asset sales, the capital gains tax as an alternative, and in poorer areas, promises to take GST off fruit and vegetables and for a $15 minimum wage. They have not wasted billboards in areas rich in National voters - on the state highway between Hamilton and Tauranga there is not a Labour billboard to be seen.

Strategic seats will be targets - including Auckland Central and Waitakere. Front bench members - other than those in marginal seats themselves, such as Ohariu - have been sent to fan out across the country to add to the profile of other candidates. There were questions about whether the decision not to have a campaign launch was cost-driven - and Labour has received precious few of the disclosable major donations of more than $30,000.

However, the party swears it is in good shape financially. It's other enemy this election is also its friend: the Green Party. The leaders of the two parties have held regular talks over the past three years as likely future coalition partners.

However, the Green Party has slowly but surely been poaching Labour's vote. The grounding of the Rena might damage National - but even those in Labour concede it is more likely to be in the Green's favour.

Nonetheless, after a tumultuous three years, Labour has somehow managed to present itself as a relatively unified and solid force as the campaign kicks off.

But it still suffers from the problem that has vexed it throughout the term - leader Phil Goff's unpopularity and John Key's immense popularity. Any dangers of a pre-election leadership coup have long diminished. However, the succession issue remains one of the inevitable dominant themes for Labour.

Because of the distraction the leadership issue has caused, Labour has sought to remove it by downplaying the role Goff takes in the campaign. Goff is now accompanied by various colleagues when he makes a policy announcement. The party's billboards feature only the electorate candidate or a policy message - no Goff. The official spin is that Labour wants to fight an election on policy, not personality. The obvious subtext is that this is because Labour knows Goff can not outdo Key on the latter. Labour was making a virtue out of a necessity.

However, Goff could yet surprise. Although he has been in politics for three decades, the public has not yet seen him campaign. In that sense at least, he has an element of freshness. He has not been flaw-free - the most recent example was apparently making deep sea drilling policy on the hop, and clumsily, in the aftermath of the grounding of the Rena.

However, his appetite for work is renowned and hopes are high in Labour that he will perform strongly in the white heat of a campaign and against Key in the election debates, which can be critical turning points.

His advisers - most notably Clark's former press secretary Gordon Jon Thompson and former television reporter Fran Mold - will be charged with making him come across as human, rather than the automaton ingrained into him from nine years as a minister.

If the shock and awe technique backfires, that might just be enough to at least keep its core support base intact and prevent a vote collapse.

Goff in his own words

On defining issues this election
I think New Zealanders will understand at the end of this campaign that this election is a referendum on whether we keep or sell our assets - it's the most clear-cut specific difference between the two parties. Secondly, it will be about whether people feel their incomes have kept up with the cost of living and whether the tax changes have been fair.

On Labour's new risky policies
The savings policy is important because we need the investment capital so we can own our own future - if we can generate the savings, then we've got a big pool of investment finance. The capital gains tax is important, apart from reasons of fairness and revenue raising, because we want to make sure we send signals that people will invest in the areas that are most productive - not speculative.

On how leadership has changed him
You always change - you learn from your mistakes and your experience. I've learned - I hope - how to do things better and about the challenges of leadership. But I don't think I've changed as a human being. The things I believe in are [what] I've always believed in.

On voting Labour
Labour will be making the decisions that are important for the future even though those are tough decisions to make. If [people] want a fairer New Zealand that doesn't see an increasing gap between the very rich and the rest of New Zealand, and a growing underclass, they will vote for Labour.

The record
33.99 per cent - Labour goes to Opposition after nine years in government. Helen Clark steps down on election night, Goff becomes leader.

2005: 41.10 per cent - close run with National at 39 per cent. Coalition with Progressives, support agreements with NZ First and United Future.

2002: 41.26 per cent - Government with support of United Future and Progressives.

1999: 38.74 per cent - Government under Helen Clark after nine years in Opposition. Forms minority coalition government with Alliance.

1996: 28.19 per cent - Another term in Opposition after NZ First opted to go with National.

- NZ Herald

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