Native Son: One of the reasons Wood was able to generate such spectacular support from Mt Roskill voters is because he is one of them. He and his young family have lived in the electorate for 13 years. During that time he has repeatedly proved himself acceptable to his neighbours by standing, successfully, in local government elections. In an electorate chock-filled with the adherents of many faiths, Wood is a self-acknowledged Christian.
IT WAS AN OLD-FASHIONED LABOUR VICTORY, won with old-fashioned Labour weapons, by an old-fashioned Labour candidate. Michael Wood deserves the heartiest congratulations for his stunning success in Mt Roskill. Capturing two-thirds of the votes cast is an impressive achievement no matter which way you slice it. Labour is, therefore, entitled to a few moments of self-congratulation at Wood’s success – but only a few. Because the party’s low membership, and its perilously stretched budget, will make it almost impossible to replicate Wood’s success across the country in 2017.
Wood threw everything bar the kitchen-sink into holding Mt Roskill for Labour. Beginning his campaign weeks before the by-election was officially announced, he made sure his name and face were everywhere Roskillians looked. They simply couldn’t escape him! Nor could they escape the vast army of volunteers Wood managed to enlist for the duration of his campaign. Canvassers and pamphlet-droppers from all over Auckland – and much farther afield – poured into the electorate in a very passable imitation of the Labour Party machine which had propelled the likes of Phil Goff into Parliament in the early-1980s.
And there’s the rub. Electioneering in the early-1980s took place under the rules of First-Past-The-Post (FPP). The very same rules that, in 2016, apply only to – you guessed it – by-elections. Under FPP, and in by-elections, the electors have only one vote to cast. So, there is no chance that, having identified the voters intending to vote for your party’s candidate, and driven them to the polling place, they decide to give their Electorate Vote to your candidate, and their Party Vote to an opposing party.
This is exactly what happened in Mt Roskill in 2014. Phil Goff won easily with 55 percent of the Electorate Vote, but National won the all-important Party Vote by more than 2,000 votes. The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system which has operated in New Zealand since 1996, by allowing electors to “split” their two votes between two different parties, has rendered the highly effective “machine” politics of FPP frustratingly unreliable.
Except at by-elections. Knowing this, Wood was able to assemble and operate an old-fashioned “election-day system” to “get out the vote” in Mt Roskill.
An election-day system is a complex process for identifying how many of your party’s supporters have already voted; how many need a hurry-up; and how many require a lift to the nearest polling-place. How do the political parties know who their supporters are? By knocking on thousands of doors and asking. How do they know if they have, or haven’t, voted? By stationing scrutineers in every polling place.
It’s a fearsomely labour-intensive process, requiring upwards of 200-300 volunteers to operate effectively. But, when the canvassing work has been done; the database is up-to-date; and the scrutineers, communicators, checker-offers, telephone operators and drivers have all been trained and deployed; then a candidate can be confident that the overwhelming majority of his or her identified voters will end up casting their ballots. The veteran party leader, Jim Anderton, was so good at running his own election-day system that he could predict, with frightening accuracy, how many votes he would get.
This was how Wood “got out” Labour’s vote on 3 December. And, if Labour had a sufficiently large membership, it could look forward to doing the same across the whole country. The problem, of course, is that Labour does not have anything like enough members to get out its optimal vote in 2017.
Nor, frankly, does it have anything like enough candidates like Michael Wood. One of the reasons Wood was able to generate such spectacular support from Mt Roskill voters is because he is one of them. He and his young family have lived in the electorate for 13 years. During that time he has repeatedly proved himself acceptable to his neighbours by standing, successfully, in local government elections. In an electorate chock-filled with the adherents of many faiths, Wood is a self-acknowledged Christian.
Forty years ago, practically all Labour candidates fitted the above description. In 2016, however, Wood is something of a political throwback: an old-fashioned Labour man more suited to when Labour could boast 85,000 branch members and there was no such thing as the Party Vote.
If Andrew Little wishes to replicate Wood’s success, then he will have to make good all of Labour’s current deficiencies. He needs to increase the party’s membership tenfold and replenish its war-chest. He needs to identify, as Wood identified, the most serious problems confronting his supporters and to offer them practical and believable solutions. Finally, he needs to ensure that Labour fields candidates firmly rooted in their communities, whose life experiences and personal values complement those of their voter base.
An old-fashioned formula for securing the electoral support of New Zealanders? Perhaps. But as Michael Wood has proved – it works.
This essay was originally posted on the Stuff website on Tuesday, 6 December 2016.