Let's get one thing straight: the Labour Party is not
shutting journalists out of its conference in Wellington this
weekend despite some media and bloggers breathlessly, but
inaccurately, claiming it is.
For all of Labour's talk about targeting voters via social
media and thus avoiding its message being filtered by the
mainstream media, the party's strategists could hardly forgo
the platform provided by a party conference which leads
directly to the top of the weekend television news bulletins.
This is even more the case given that Labour may well be
indulging in the ''politics of authenticity'' by trying
another tack to connect David Cunliffe with voters.
Tomorrow's keynote address by the Labour leader is understood
to delve deeply into personal stuff - Mr Cunliffe's
background, his growing up, his education, what influenced
him, what motivates him and so forth.
With the party also unveiling its election slogan this
weekend, the speech sounds suspiciously Obama-like in
painting a life story with which voters can identify.
It is no coincidence the conference is also being addressed
on that approach by an Australian campaigning expert, Damian
Ogden. His company, Campaign Action, has been working with
Labour for at least the last two years on improving the
party's ''direct voter contact'' - a fancy way of saying good
Without even knowing it, Mr Ogden recently put his finger on
Mr Cunliffe's biggest handicap. He said a party could have
the best policy in the world, but if people did not trust the
leader, they would not listen to what he had to say. If
people knew the leader's story, they were connected to the
leader and only then did they listen.
Mr Ogden added that a politician's identity was the most
important thing a politician had.
''If you're not talking about yourself and who you are,
you're letting the other side do it''. Exactly. Mr Cunliffe's
other problem is that voters feel they don't know him,
whereas they feel a strong empathy with John Key, even if
they have not met him.
It is tricky territory for Mr Cunliffe. The risk is that his
life story does not match Mr Key's in impact.
Not surprisingly, Mr Ogden's contribution is timed for a
session closed to the media. It is true many of the sessions
are designated as no-go zones for reporters and cameras, but
that is because it is a Labour ''congress'' rather than a
Labour conference, and there is a difference.
The idea of an election-year congress had its genesis in
Labour's fraught post-election conference which followed the
party's thrashing by National in 1990.
For three or so days, the lost-looking delegates entered and
exited the Michael Fowler Centre auditorium like zombies.
They were still stunned by the severity of the defeat and in
no fit mental state to begin thinking on what to do about it.
That unfortunate wake was a catalyst for a switch to a much
more election-oriented summit of the Labour clan earlier in
election year where the speeches were focused as much as
anything on rallying the troops for the battle ahead.
Rather than engaging in arcane debates over the minutiae of
policy remits, most of the congress is devoted to giving
delegates nuts-and-bolts instruction in electioneering
techniques and electoral law which they pass on to party
volunteers in their electorates.
It is all about getting the Labour grass roots match-fit for
the official four-week election campaign. It is designed to
get those volunteers out door-knocking - something that
Labour is putting particular stock in at this election.
The party's understandable aversion to revealing its election
strategy has meant large portions of the congress agenda have
always been off limits to journalists. It is no different
this year. In fact, if anything, the party has opened more
sessions to the media perhaps conscious it risks being
categorised as some kind of secret society.
Yesterday's briefing of candidates on the party's efforts to
reconnect with voters at a local level was opened up to the
media. However, the corresponding congress session in which
Mr Ogden will feature remains closed.
''Direct voter contact'' is a step up from the usual approach
to door-knocking, which involves identifying undecided
voters, feeding them with a standard message as to how they
should vote before loading their details into the party's
database so they can be rung or visited on election day and
cajoled into voting.
According to an American company which employs a similar
approach, direct voter contact involves having ''high-quality
person-to-person conversation'' with voters on issues which
matter to them personally and tailoring the party's response
to that person's concern accordingly.
Despite the rise of technological approaches to campaigning,
face-to-face interaction is back in fashion.
With the party holding about 100 street corner meetings in
the electorate, Labour's revised grass-roots approach to
campaigning saw the party retain Christchurch East in last
November's by-election by a far larger majority than was
expected. Labour believes holding ''genuine conversations''
with voters could see it pick up two to three percentage
points of the party vote by election day.
It also notes National's rating in the polls fell six points
during the same period at the last election.
Labour's intention to ''super-size'' the Christchurch East
trial nationwide is contingent on it having enough volunteers
to knock on doors. It is one thing to pour resources into an
electorate for a by-election; it is something else to
replicate that intensity across all electorates at a general
Labour labels its revitalised canvassing as ''people power''.
But the flip-side is apathy. Labour shed more than 180,000
votes at the last election; National picked up little more
than 5000 extra votes on top of its 2008 result.
The assumption is that Labour's lost voters simply did not
vote. Labour has to win them back at this election. Otherwise
not voting will become a habit and they will be lost forever.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political