I thought David Seymour was the most interesting speaker at the Victoria University post-election conference at Parliament last year. Two things stood out for me in his presentation following ACT’s election gains. He opened by offering lengthy and effusive praise to his researcher, then clearly stated his objective to supplant National as the leading party on the right. He’s on track for that, as current media attention shows.
I’ve had a long interest in political research dating back to the late 1980’s when New Zealand Labour started its relationship with Utting Market Research now continuing without John Utting as UMR so my ears pricked up when Seymour praised his researchers so effusively. I don’t know who they are but they do seem to know what they are doing.
What was interesting about the ACT campaign was that it surprised by putting together a coalition of seemingly unrelated cohorts; the pro-gun lobby and those pro end-of-life choice being just two examples. These groups do not fit into any conventional political paradigm or spectrum, but they are characterised by varying levels of commitment to their cause and receptiveness to the idea of freedom of choice. This indicates that ACT’s research is leading to an organising strategy based on real cohorts not an advertising strategy based on constructed cohorts, which means it is likely to be effective in New Zealand’s advertising-constrained political communication environment.
The next cohort in ACT’s sights would appear to be discontented farmers. Seymour is a clever communicator who knows how to press the right buttons. If he makes real headway among farmers he achieves two things at once, bringing on board a significant cohort and at the same time severely weakening National.
And ACT is a genuine right-wing party. I don’t think Labour and the Left should rejoice too much at the travails of National. It was founded in the 1930s as an anti-Labour coalition of the corporate elite and the country, and could well splinter. But we should be careful what we might wish for.
I also think it would be good for Labour particularly to have a good look at its own cohorts, implied and explicit, to test how strong the connections still are in the 21st century. Also its communication strategy; talking too much about being focused on the middle ground risks danger. By definition it lacks definition, which is not a good basis for commitment.