John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Right message to the wrong audience

One of the three Labour Party leader contenders Shane Jones. Photo / Doug Sherring
One of the three Labour Party leader contenders Shane Jones. Photo / Doug Sherring

It was apt that the first of the dozen meetings up and down the country in which contenders for Labour's leadership meet party members took place in Levin on Saturday.

It is in such provincial centres that next year's election will be won and lost. On that score, Labour has an awful lot of ground to make up.

Levin is in the National-held Otaki electorate where the party vote tells the story of Labour's decline in provincial areas.

In the 2005 election, Labour captured nearly 42 per cent of the party vote in Otaki to National's 39 per cent. In 2011, Labour's share fell to just below 30 per cent, while National picked up nearly 47 per cent.

The Otaki result was one of the party's better showings in the provinces. In North Island regions outside Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton, Labour's share of the party vote in 2011 was 22 per cent compared with 35 per cent in 2005.

Of the three contenders, Shane Jones addressed that problem most directly in his speech to Saturday's meeting. When he went to the regions and visited workplaces, hotels, RSA clubs and marae, he said, he struggled to find loud voices saying their "first waka of choice" was Labour even though the economic circumstances of the people in such places meant they should be Labour.

Pigeonholing Grant Robertson as a "full-blooded machine organisation Labour politician" and David Cunliffe as a creature of metropolitan New Zealand, Jones pitched himself to the 350 or so party members as the only candidate who could broaden Labour's appeal and communicate that to provincial New Zealand.

Cunliffe responded by joking, "I come from Auckland, sorry." But he said he understood small-town New Zealand, having grown up there.

Robertson made reference to the regions, but drew most applause when he declared he build an economy with one goal in mind - "the advancement of people over money".

The reality is that the leadership contest is all about which candidate best embodies Labour's soul and tradition as a party of the left, and that is where Robertson and Cunliffe are directing their messages.

That is tough on Jones who is talking political common sense and as he claims, he may be Labour's best messenger. Unfortunately for him, it is Labour Party members who vote in this particular election.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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