Hijacking the Heartland

Labour’s “heartland” tour was an artless, and now dead, act of sloganeering.

One of the most profound mistakes in modern politics is what I call ‘sloganising the strategy’. This is when politicians openly describe their political strategy – believing that by announcing it, they make the strategy happen. Nope.  Strategies are internal. They guide what you say and do to bring them about. If you publicise the strategy, you’re revealing, and reveling in, the artifice.

Labour this year had a strategy of reaching out to “heartland New Zealand”; the people who voted against the Party in 2008 and 2011, the people who like the style of John Key, the people who came to dislike the nannying and social-value setting of the Clark Government more than they liked its middle-class economics.

The wisdom of this approach is not only that it aims to make Labour electable as this group of swinging voters tire of National, but that it sets the expectations of Labour’s core voters, and its own MPs.

The logical next step of the strategy is to go out and meet these voters. Hear their stories. Learn their politics. Reflect their concerns.

The artless next step was to turn that tactic into a branded campaign; the heartland tour. Energy has been put into branding and imagery. The campaign identifies regions, lists what is wrong with them, proposes broad happy talk solutions, and then has a little form for people to give their “ideas”. Underwhelming.

As bloggers have pointed out, it is reminiscent of many other tours by Labour MPs to see the ‘real people’.

In fact I was responsible for perhaps the first MP regional tour back in 1991. That tour was the model of substance. It was conducted without fanfare by Labour MPs who would later become main members of the Clark Cabinet  It was about shutting the hell up and listening. It gave us all an appreciation of the views of our prospective voters, and gave us real-life ammunition against the National government and for policy formation.

The crux of what was effectively a three month tour was meeting real people in real life situations. Meeting them where they lived, worked and played. I can’t recall any speeches. 

Modern politicians dislike the risk of random interactions with the public. They prefer arranged meetings where they can talk. But can you imagine how hard it is to set up presentations from MPs few people have heard of, from a Party currently irrelevant?

Thus, the Heartland tour does not have a lot of substance. They aren’t doing walk-abouts, and they’re giving speeches to small groups of people.

In fact, it’s probably now been all but abandoned, given the Party implosion and  fighting over, er, something.

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