Bill English

Previewing 2018: National

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2018 will be a tricky year for National, with the Labour-led government still benefitting from a new car smell, and being able to formally launch a raft of signature policies, especially over the first half of the year. So what's in store for the blue team in 2018?

National kicked off the 2018 political year early, with Transport spokesperson Judith Collins launching a series of petitions designed to put the government under pressure to regarding a raft of roading projects that had been proposed under National. This was followed by Nikki Kaye launching another petition calling on the government to resource schools so that primary and intermediate aged school children had access to be taught a second language.

Politically they're both useful strategies. Many of the roading projects being fought for via the petitions enjoy significant support at the electorate level, and Nikki Kaye's second language petition stems from a policy idea National launched in election 2017 that was very warmly received. I suspect much of National's approach in 2018 will look similar to what we've seen over the past couple of weeks.

That means that on the one hand National will look to a piece of Key/English era policy that's under threat and use a potential threat to it as a way to attack the new government, but at the same time they'll promote a new, innovative policy in a different area. It's a strategy that will allow National to both stand up to protect their own record in government, as well as move their policy platform forward for 2020.

Remember too that petitions aren't just about promoting a policy or pressuring the government on a given issue, they're also an important tool to bolster email lists and inform voter ID databases. Expect a steady stream of these throughout 2018.

The big question that will hover over National throughout 2018 is whether Bill English will stay or go. English indicated after the election that he intended to stay on to contest 2020 as leader, and the reality is that should he want to, and National's poll numbers continue to hold up, there's every chance he could do that. Bill English is immensely well respected and liked within the National Party, and unless National's polling drops below 40%, it's unlikely there will be any moves to challenge him.

In the event that English decides to leave, or the poll numbers drop off, I'd expect any leadership transition to take place in the second half of the year, possibly around June to August. In part, this is because the new government should, off the back of a busy first half of the year, hit its best poll numbers as a result of the Budget, meaning that post-Budget could be when Bill English decides to call stumps on what's been a long and dedicated career of public service.

Likewise, from that point forward, the strengths that English would trade on versus the government - the experience of him and his team - will deliver diminishing returns as more water goes under the government's bridge as their team builds on their own experience and irons out any teething problems.

Much of National's ability to reinvent themselves going into 2020 may well rest on what English does. If English does decide to leave, along with the leadership contest, it will likely trigger a few other departures too. List MPs like David Carter, Chris Finlayson, and Nicky Wagner may well announce their departures soon after, while a slew of electorate MPs such as Gerry Brownlee, Anne Tolley, Ian McKelvie, and Nick Smith, will likely wait until late 2019 or early 2020 to announce they won't be standing again. I'd be genuinely surprised if any of the National electorate MPs leave mid-term and trigger a by-election, unless they happen to stand for a local body role in 2019.

All of this leaves the question - if not Bill English as leader, then who? In my mind there's a handful of contenders who I'll list in no particular order:

  • Paula Bennett: Currently Deputy Leader, and former Deputy Prime Minister, Bennett is generally well liked throughout the party. Much like John Key, she not only has a compelling backstory, but she does tend to polarise opinion outside the party, with people either loving or hating her. Bennett's personal "westie" brand would offer an interesting contrast with the more inner city urban charisma of Jacinda Ardern.
  • Simon Bridges: National's Leader of the House, Bridges has long been talked about as a future leader of the party. Respected throughout the party, Bridges occupies a special place in National for having nearly snuffed out New Zealand First by beating Winston Peters in Tauranga in 2008. Bridges also has experience going one-on-one versus Ardern, having both been part of TVNZ's political "Young Guns" panel on Breakfast.
  • Nikki Kaye: The Auckland Central MP and former Education Minister has one thing that no other candidate has - she's beaten Jacinda Ardern not once, but twice in Auckland Central, a seat that demographically could be a strong Labour seat. Kaye has also won plaudits both for a formidable work ethic, as well as bringing a fresh and innovative approach to her portfolio areas. While Nikki Kaye has recently ruled out running to be leader if Bill English leaves, I don't think anyone should read too much into that denial.
  • Amy Adams: With her background and links to rural New Zealand, Adams offers an opportunity for National to go after New Zealand First in provincial New Zealand. On top of that, Adams also has a strong grasp of policy and a well respected record during her tenure as a Minister. Adams also kept her powder dry during the post-Key leadership contest.
  • Jonathan Coleman: Following John Key's resignation, the then Health Minister pitched himself as someone who could refresh National's approach. There's no reason to think that Coleman's ambition has diminished since going into opposition, and his hand may very well be strengthened in a post-English world.

Outside possibilities include Judith Collins, who challenged for the leadership in December 2016, as well as Steven Joyce who has refused to speculate on any ambition to be leader of the party.

Whatever happens with National's leadership, there is a need to use 2018 to make the switch from the traditional combative role of opposition to being an opposition that leads the conversation on policy issues. The usual attack-based approach to opposition didn't work for either Labour or National during their spells in the wilderness in the past two decades, and it was only largely when both parties moved away from that approach that they started to enjoy electorate success.

This will be a challenge for National, because as much as they need to make this switch going into 2020, it's also important that they're not seen to turn their backs too quickly on the Key/English era. A leadership change would make this easier, but it is still possible if English decides to stay on to contest the 2020 election.

National will still need to, as much as possible, hold the government to account, keep the feet of poorly performing or struggling government ministers to the fire, poke and prod at policy and personality tension points between Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens, and ensure that they make their voices heard at Parliament. But now is the time to get their ducks in a row for 2020.

The political week ahead - 6 November 2017

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Some highlights to look ahead to this week in politics. This isn't a complete list, just bits and bobs that have sprung to mind. Feel free to email me at info@libertas.digital, tweet at @libertasnz, or send a Facebook message.

Monday 6 November 2017

  • Post-Cabinet press conference. This is usually held around 4pm and Labour looks like they're continuing Bill English and John Key's practice of live streaming it on their Facebook page. Several of the other main media outlets also live stream it too. It's good to get a view on what's in the week ahead for the government, as well as some of the themes journalists might explore that week. It's just a pity that the Beehive Theartrette  isn't microphoned so you can better hear the questions being asked.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

  • Commission Opening of Parliament: I won't go into the details of this, but it's an interesting process to watch, including the election of Trevor Mallard as Speaker (who else is it really going to be?). Find out more about what happens here.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

  • State Opening of Parliament: This is the where the Governor-General turns up and gives the speech from the throne that outlines the Government's legislative programme. The speech itself isn't that exciting, though it's a useful document to refer back to over the term. That's followed by the Address in Reply debate which, if it follows previous years, will see the new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in action for the chamber for the first time. The Address in Reply debate will carry on for a few weeks as time in the House allows. More information on this is available here.
  • Maiden speeches: I'm anticipating the Address in Reply debate will be halted around 4 or 5pm to allow new MPs to deliver their maiden speeches. These can be quite a mix of quality, so expect a few brilliant speeches, and a few train wrecks too! Like all Parliamentary business in the House you can watch this on Parliament On Demand or on Parliament TV.
  • We might also see the first pieces of Government legislation introduced this day too.

Thursday 9 November 2017

  • The first Question Time for the new Government! Traditionally The Prime Minister and party leaders aren't in the House on Thursdays for Question Time, and in this case the Prime Minister will be departing for APEC on Thursday morning.
  • The Reserve Bank will release its Quarterly Monetary Policy Statement on Thursday morning. It'll likely contain new forecasts for economic growth over the coming years, which are already tipped to ease off from the buoyant ones in the PREFU. Specifically look for warnings around inflation and economic growth not peaking at 3.7% in 2019 anymore. That being said, it's hard for the Reserve Bank to make these forecasts about the impact of policy without that detail from the Labour-led Government being available until we see their first mini-Budget later this year.
  • There'll also be more maiden speeches from around 5pm.

Friday 10 November 2017

  • Statistics NZ have two releases scheduled for Friday, both useful economic indicators too. There's Electronic Card Transactions for October 2017 and the Accommodation Survey for September 2017. The election and post-election negotiations may have impacted negatively on these, though I wouldn't expect that to be enough to offset the growth in these off the back of a relatively confident economy.

Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 November 2017

  • After a solid first international trip to Sydney to meet with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern heads to Vietnam for APEC. Over the two days there she'll conduct a range of bilateral talks, including possibly with US President Donald Trump. These will be announced either closer to the weekend or as they happen.

Bill and Winston almost owe Colin Craig a beer... almost

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When they're sitting down for coalition negotiations over the coming days, Bill English and Winston Peters should raise a glass in honour of Colin Craig, the man who saved both their parties this election.

Well, I'm exaggerating a bit there. But an analysis comparing preliminary results from both the 2014 and 2017 elections suggests a correlation between electorates where the Conservatives won a high share of the party vote and the electorates in 2017 which comparatively contributed more to the final overall party vote totals of National and New Zealand First this election.

The idea is simple. In 2014 approximately 95,000 New Zealanders voted for the Conservative Party led by Colin Craig. In the preliminary results on 20 September 2014, that figure was 86,616. In 2017's preliminary results that figure had dropped to just 5,318. On election night there were some 81,298 voters who had left the HMNZS Colin Craig in those three years, and I wanted to find them.

There were a few assumptions that were easy to make. I thought it was pretty unlikely many of them would have switched their votes to Labour, the Greens, or even The Opportunities Party given TOP's liberal stance on marijuana.

The issues that motivated voters to cast their ballots for the Conservatives were predominantly social issues that they had a conservative take on. That meant there were only three likely parties for those votes to go to.

Given ACT got so few votes, it was clear they hadn't all rushed there. Plus ACT under David Seymour emphasises a more libertarian ideology than say the ACT of John Banks or Richard Prebble which had a healthy does of social conservatism mixed in with its Rogernomics bent.

That left only National and New Zealand First as the two contenders for those votes. National under John Key was a fairly socially liberal party, but Bill English, as a Catholic, does have a socially conservative streak in him. Likewise New Zealand First and in particular Winston Peters, have always appealed to the protectionist, anti-outsider, harking back to the good-old-days mentality that is commonly associated with voters of a conservative nature. And, if overseas experience teaches us anything, those of a conservative nature aren't shy about voting, so I didn't expect them to stay away in large numbers.

What I wanted to see specifically though was whether this translated into my previous examination of the changing party vote share in each electorate between the two elections. Maybe I'd missed something. Could National's stronger than expected (and Labour's weaker than expected) results in Auckland be explained purely off Conservative voters bulking up the ranks of National and New Zealand First.

The answers surprised me. As you might imagine, there seems to be a pretty clear correlation that generally shows that in electorates where the Conservatives did well in 2014, then those electorates managed to contribute more to the overall party vote totals of National and New Zealand First than they did in 2014.

And bare in mind that this is off preliminary results from 2014 and 2017, so I'm trying to compare apples with apples as much is possible across two elections.

In case you can't expand the above image, the light blue line is the share of the party vote that the Conservatives received in each electorate in 2014. The dark blue and grey lines is the percentage change of how those electorates contributed to National and New Zealand First's overall party vote in 2017 compared to 2014. If the lines jut out to the right it means that electorate has contributed a greater share to the party's overall party vote than it did in 2014. If it's to the left, it contributed less overall. Where I'd earlier just looked at individual electorates in isolation, this allows us to compare electorates within the context of the overall party vote. So I'll dig more into this later.

As you can see in the above image (if you need a bigger version feel free to contact me) where the Conservatives got over 4.47% of the party vote in an electorate in 2014 (that's Waitaki in the above) there appears to have been enough support transferred to National and New Zealand First in 2017 to shore up their support.

As New Zealand First needed fewer of those Conservative votes in each electorate to prop up their party vote numbers, I have to wonder if there was a bit of a churn cycle going on as National sought to replace the support it was losing to Labour. This cycle would see Conservative voters largely going to New Zealand First and some to National, but New Zealand First shedding voters towards National, especially in the large rural or provincial city electorates where National made a big push during the campaign.

Where the Conservatives got 4.47% they generally don't seem to have had enough votes to protect National or New Zealand First. Notable at the bottom of the list are Wellington Central, Auckland Central, and Mt Albert, all places that were in the top 10 locations that Labour grew its party vote relative to 2014.

Where things start to get interesting too is that this highlights the importance of National's performance in West and South Auckland outside of just collecting former Conservative and New Zealand First voters. Looking at the top 10 electorates where National grew it's share of the party vote relative to 2014, only Botany and Pakuranga sit above that tipping point where the number of Conservative voters was high enough to protect National and New Zealand First.

What's also worth noting about all of those electorates is that they have some of the worst voter turnout rates - if not the worst - in the country. It means that not only did National manage to capitalise on Labour's weaknesses with ethnic communities and potentially the mortgage belt in Auckland, but also Labour simply was not able to turn out voters with nearly all of those electorates down in total votes in the 2017 preliminary results compared to 2014 (only Botany and Te Atatu recorded more preliminary votes) which seems incredible when you consider that there should be more people living in those electorates relative to 2014!

There's a few outliers in the data. New Zealand First's Clutha-Southland performance for one, which I suspect is driven by other, more recent events in that electorate, while Northland and Whangarei were likely driven by the presence of Winston Peters and Shane Jones respectively.

That's enough for now! Will churn through some more insights from this dataset soon hopefully. And obviously I'll try to re-run this analysis to to compare the final results from 2014 with the final results from 2017.

You won't believe what happened in South Auckland!

Two things appear to have gone badly wrong for New Zealand's centre-left bloc this election. We know the youthquake hasn't happened, but the other appears to be that Labour's traditional South Auckland strongholds have failed them badly. Not only did those electorates deliver well below Labour's average gain across the country, but National was actually able to increase their share of the party vote there too!

Before you read any further you should note that these are based off the preliminary count, and don't include the 385,000 special and overseas votes yet to be counted. I'll try to another recalculation of these statistics once we have the final declared result, as I imagine there could be some shifting around in these rankings.

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Of the 71 electorate seats, National managed to increase its share of the party vote compared to 2014 in 12 of them. All 12 of those seats were Auckland seats too. As you can see from the above, where National has done surprising well across both South and West Auckland. In a campaign where issues like housing affordability, inequality, and health were meant to be top of mind for voters, and Labour touted their solutions to these problems, that they not only failed to gain traction in South and West Auckland, but allowed National to grow its share of the party vote there, is what stopped them from winning last night.

Where National lost most ground is interesting too, with National being most punished in the urban centres and a few provincial cities too. There could be a couple of things going on here. The first, I suspect, is the Jacinda effect showing up with young, urban voters in the big centres going Labour's way. Mt Albert will definitely be the Jacinda effect at play given it's now her home turf, and Christchurch Central and the Port Hills could be to do with simmering issues over Christchurch's earthquake recovery.

Interestingly, despite having lost badly in Mt Roskill in last year's by-election, National has performed well there. Which makes you wonder if they fielded a better candidate there whether they might have a better chance of winning the seat in the future.

I've including National's performance in the Māori seats here for consistency with the following graphics, but the reality is that National doesn't collect many votes in these seats and is usually outpolled easily by New Zealand First.

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If I were Labour the first thing I'd be doing on Monday is sacking whoever was in charge of campaigning in Auckland, and probably Phil Twyford - Labour's overall campaign manager - too. While Labour grew its share of the party vote in all electorates, its failure in Auckland is little short of a disaster for them. To win an election in New Zealand you effectively have to win in Auckland, and South and West Auckland should have been areas Labour did better in.

There's probably a few reasons why Labour failed in Auckland. The large Chinese and Indian ethnic communities would likely have voted National following Labour's various anti-immigration debacles over the past three years. It's notable that Jacinda Ardern, when presented with a chance to back away from these policies, hasn't done so, and Labour has paid the price.

I'd also wager that Bill English's Catholic faith and his wife Mary's Samoan heritage has played a role here too. It would have allowed many Pacific Island communities across Auckland to identify with him more than Labour, and comes off the back of National having made a real push to these communities over the past two elections.

The real stars for Labour though were the Māori electorates, which were not only the top five best performing, but took out seven of the top 11 spots. While Willie Jackson did nominally fill the role of Māori campaign chair, I'd wager that most of this growth had little to do with him, and more to do with a backlash against the Māori Party, Kelvin Davis' elevation to the deputy leadership, and Jacinda Ardern eating the Green's party vote across the country.

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Beltway sorts should have a nice chuckle that New Zealand First grew it's share of the party vote the most in Clutha-Southland. Other than that there's not much for Winston Peters to get excitged about here. Him being the MP for Northland clearly helped there, as did the selection and focus on Shane Jones in Whangarei. Other than that, it's pretty grim reading. Losing 2.78% points in Tauranga and Bay of Plenty is bad news given that this used to be Winston's stronghold.

They also didn't fare particularly well across the country in general, growing their share of the party vote in only five electorates and getting badly hammered in the Māori electorates which were their six worse performing overall.

With all this in mind, it's clear that once Winston Peters is gone, New Zealand First is gone. Winston and his party are utterly incapable of succession planning, and there's clearly nobody in the caucus who would remotely be able to pick up the mantle once Winston is gone.

So enjoy Winston's theatrics while they last.

There was no good news for the Green Party across the country, only terrible news, bad news, and not quite as bad news. The really damning stuff is how poorly the Greens did in Wellington Central where, in 2014, they got the second highest share of the party vote. It appears that the Greens urban liberal base have deserted the party in droves to go with Labour.

Rather than a youthquake, we've had a youth exodus from the Greens to Labour.

Where the Green Party can take heart I think is their performance across South and East Auckland where they stemmed the bleeding, in part helped by Labour's seeming inability to run a successful campaign north of the Bombays. I have a fleeting suspicion that some of their relative success here will also be down to Chlöe Swarbrick, who's likely converted much of the support and subsequent media coverage she received in her 2016 Auckland mayoralty run into support for the Greens.

Hopefully the Greens realise what a huge asset Chlöe is for their future, as they'll need her to turn things around at the next election.

In terms of the Māori seats the Greens have been hit by the swing to Labour in them, though not to the extent that New Zealand First was hit.

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The final thing I wanted to throw in here was looking at the biggest swings around the country. To measure this I took the combined shifts in Labour and the Greens share of party votes, and looked at the gap to what National had lost (and vice-versa for any swings to the right).

Only four seats recorded a net swing to the right - again all in South and West Auckland! I suspect that on special votes Manurewa might drop off this list those as 0.11% points would be well within the 0.3% point drop I've predicted for National's party vote share from advance voting to final results. Even if Manurewa drops out, this still represents a massive failure for Labour in Auckland, and it's an issue they have to sort out if they're to beat National.

As per the other results, the seats where Labour did well and National did poorly largely figure here. The Māori electorates would have had larger net swings that I've recorded above due to my not including the Māori Party in these calculations.

What's crucial to remember though is while 67 electorates have experienced a net shift to the left, Labour and the Greens are still 4.3% points short of National, meaning that you can't necessarily claim a mood for change exists within the country, as more people voted for the status quo than for the alternative centre-left bloc. I don't think you can justify lumping New Zealand First's party vote in with a mood for change, as it's more just a "mood to be listened to" by those who vote for him.

No youthquake yet but there is a greyquake

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Sorry Corbynistas, there's no sign of a youthquake this election. But there are signs of a significant greyquake. While there's still time for that to change, it would have to be a massive upswing in 18-24-year-old enrolments in the 11 days from 12 September to the election.

I was spurred into looking into the Electoral Commissions numbers by a friend who had heard talk of a youthquake but couldn't see it showing up in enrolment figures, and initially I was trying to compare enrolments as a percentage of eligible population. Then I realised that it was a tad difficult to do as I could only compare off the 2013 Census numbers, and there's been reasonable population growth since then.

Instead I decided to breakdown the overall makeup of the enrolled electors in each election year, as it's ultimately the demographic makeup of voters that's more relevant in seeing changes. It doesn't particularly matter if more young people vote if they're balanced out by more superannuitants voting.

What the current data shows is that it's the exact opposite happening, the 2017 elector population is looking like it will have a higher representation of those over 55 than in 2014, and that doesn't particularly help parties like the Greens who focus so heavily on the youth vote. It could also be holding back Jacinda Ardern's numbers slightly too as Labour has also been heavily focused in getting out the youth vote, which simply doesn't seem to be happening.

As we've seen overseas, older voters tend towards supporting centre-right to right wing parties, meaning both National and NZ First's numbers could be supported more than otherwise may have been the case.

The other important factor is that young people are less likely to turn out to vote than older people. That means the impact of this potential greyquake could well be compounded as those voters, especially aged over 70, amplify their presence more than normal at the same time as younger voter numbers are down along with their lower turnout.

Sadly I can't see this improving until civics education is ramped up in our secondary schools.

I'm also working on seeing how the enrolment percentages look compared to the estimated eligible population, but that's a bit trickier due to the need to estimate 2014's population, especially those aged 18 and 19, so will blog on that later.

Voter turnout in the 2014 election by age cohort demonstrates the double whammy that a larger grey percentage of the voting demographic will have on the 2017 election. More older New Zealanders voting at a higher rate means they're having a larger impact than younger New Zealanders who don't turn out to vote.

Voter turnout in the 2014 election by age cohort demonstrates the double whammy that a larger grey percentage of the voting demographic will have on the 2017 election. More older New Zealanders voting at a higher rate means they're having a larger impact than younger New Zealanders who don't turn out to vote.

Update: 3:15pm - I've just had a play around with some data trying to get a view on how enrolments are tracking as a percentage of the population for each cohort. It does show a potentially big gap in those under 34 who haven't enrolled to vote yet, relative to how other cohorts are tracking relative to 2014.

It's not perfect, as the data for 2014 is an estimate based of the 2013 Census data, and it doesn't remove those who are ineligible to vote, as well as the 18 and 19-year-old sections of the 18 - 24--year-old cohort being estimated based off the overall population growth in the 15 - 19-year-old cohort in the June 2014 estimates from Statistics NZ.

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Beyond the headline Facebook stats is Bill English winning?

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For all the talk of the hugely impressive rise of Jacinda Ardern, Bill English might actually be doing better than her on Facebook than we all realise. Despite Jacinda's page continuing to grow faster than Bill's, in the past fortnight there was significantly more engagement with Bill English's social media content than there was with Jacinda Ardern's. 

I've written before about how important Facebook page likes can be, especially for political pages in terms of the platform it can give them, but it's always useful to dive down to the next level of statistics to see how things are tracking. 

This is where things get interesting. If you look at the volume and type of interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) taking place for political parties and especially their leaders, it becomes clear that while Jacinda might be getting a higher rate of audience interaction on each individual post she makes, Bill is getting more audience interaction overall. And it's not by a small margin either.

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Taking a look at what's taken place on the party leaders' pages from 28 August to 10 September, Bill's page is only 14% larger than Jacinda's, but his page has received in total 62% more reactions (like, love, wow, laugh, angry, sad) than Jacinda's, there's also 54% more comments and, perhaps crucially, 75% more shares. Bill is also far more active than Jacinda on Facebook, having posted 64 times to Jacinda's 34 times - 80% more! Bill is posting around 4.6 times a day while Jacinda is only posting 2.4 times. Even looking back at the previous fortnight (from 14 to 27 August) the statistics are broadly similar.

While I'm not privy to the audience impressions either page is receiving, off the basis of this I'd wager that Bill English is reaching far more people on Facebook than Jacinda Ardern, and in the world of political communication, that's critical. You need to get your messages out in front of as many people as possible, as often as you can, and social media is custom made for that approach. I'd expect that each page should be reaching in excess of 1 million people each week - they're basically their own TV stations at this point!

It makes the fact that Jacinda Ardern hasn't tweeted for more than three weeks even more mysterious. She has nearly 86,000 followers on Twitter who, judging from my experience with Twitter, are more than likely to be a great tool to help amplify Labour's messages even more and ensure that people, especially influencers like journalists, business leaders, and bloggers, and seeing those messages on Twitter as frequently as possible. It seems so bizarre to negate a channel like this.

I'm not Twitter's greatest fan, but I can't deny that it has its uses and it seems very odd that Labour isn't maximising them to their advantage. Have they not been able to get Jacinda to share access to her account? Seems unlikely. Are they pursuing a policy where they leave Twitter in Jacinda's hands alone? Possibly, but it's clearly not working. Are they simply ignoring Twitter because they don't think it's worth the effort? If so they're neglecting a very powerful tool and community for centre-left parties.

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On the party front it's pretty much neck and neck between Labour and National in terms of the volumes and rate of interactions with their nearly identical amounts of content. What's fascinating here for me is how the bottom seems to have fallen out of interactions from the Green Party. My personal experience was that the Greens were almost always the best in attracting interaction with their content, but it's quite possible that following their leadership troubles of the past two months, and Jacinda Ardern's rise, that the bottom has truly dropped out of the party's support, which would be a great shame if that were the case.

It's also important to remember that outside of content that's publicly visible on a page's timeline, there will also be a wealth of content that solely appears in Facebook's ad slots, and can't be picked up by analytics tools.

Could this impact the outcome of the election? I think it could. It's vital to keep in mind that in an MMP environment, even a change of a couple of percentage points could be what enables a party to form a government or not. And that's really where I think social media, done well, can influence voters in a meaningful way, and done poorly, can cost you the chance to govern.

Why has Jacinda's Twitter account gone silent?

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Russell Brown noticed this week that Jacinda Ardern hasn't tweeted since 20 August. It's struck me as a little odd as it's not that much effort to take a Facebook post and turn it into a tweet. While I did jokingly ask Labour whether they'd lost her Twitter password, it turns out that she was never that particularly active on Twitter anyway.

Looking back at August she tweeted a grand total of 11 times. Over that same time frame Bill English has tweeted 110 times!

It strikes me as a bit bizarre. Generally speaking the demographics of Twitter suggest its audience is hugely receptive to her content. Judging by the response her three tweets received when she became Labour Party leader, it's really surprising that they haven't done more here, especially with more than 82,000 followers. That's a lot of potential amplification for your content from a very sympathetic audience.

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There's a few possibilities I think could be at play:

  1. They're wanting to leave Jacinda's Twitter account as something she runs herself. The fascination with President Trump's personal use of Twitter does suggest that leaving a leader to use their own Twitter account as they see fit could be an effective way to get your message out, especially if it's devoid of Trump's craziness. The problem is you probably need your leader to use Twitter for it to be effective.
     
  2. Labour is consciously trying to get journalists and bloggers to go to Facebook to see what Jacinda's doing, and to embed that Facebook content onto their websites directly rather than from Twitter. This approach does have its merits, as Facebook is a far superior platform to reach voters with, while journalists and influencers generally use Twitter to keep up with events. If you force them to embed your Facebook content into their stories so by directing your content solely to Facebook they'll be forced to support how that channel performs.
     
  3. Labour might be trying to avoid adding to Jacinda's public profile given the near blanket coverage she's received since becoming leader, and thus avoid Jacinda-fatigue. Though given how prominently she features on all their campaign collateral this seems unlikely.
     
  4. Tying back into my first idea, as a result of campaigning, Jacinda hasn't had time to tweet that often. Though I did see one journalist make the point (and I wish I could find the story or tweet I saw it in) that Jacinda has only had one or two carefully choreographed events in front of large Labour Party faithful crowds each day for the past week, presumably as she swatted up ahead of the debate and to avoid any awkward optics that might suggest that the Jacinda effect is tapering off. A look through her Facebook feed seems to confirm this rather quiet campaigning approach leading up to the debate.
     
  5. Labour realised most of Twitter's active users are already either voting for them or the Greens and have decided to invest their efforts in Facebook where they can try to reach soft-National and NZ First voters, as well as undecided voters, to persuade them to come back to the fold.

That final point is the one that I think is most likely here. There's probably elements of the other possibilities lurking around, but I think the main driver will be that Labour know Twitter is overwhelmingly going to vote for a centre-left government, so they're investing their resources elsewhere.

But I can't think for the life of me the last time a leader who wants to be the head of government has effectively switched off one of their social media channels in one such a tightly contested election.

Jacinda Ardern could eat a kitten and still win the first debate

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With Bill English and Jacinda Ardern going head-to-head in the first leaders' debate tonight at 7pm on TVNZ 1, the cards are firmly stacked in Jacinda Ardern's favour to come out on top. A formidable debater in her own right, as well as presenting well on TV, Jacinda could eat a kitten during the debate and still be judged to be the winner.

I don't write that to be cynical, but rather it's a reflection of the advantages that Jacinda takes into tonight's debate. She's riding a wave of extremely positive media coverage, Labour has bounced back spectacularly from the brink of oblivion in less than a month of her leadership, and she has the intelligence, she has the ability, and she has the charisma to deliver her a clear win tonight.

Bill English does bring his own strengths to the debate. His knowledge and command of policy is almost unparalleled, and other than lingering issues over the Winston Peters' pension story, comes into the debate fresh from a run of good policy announcements, and Bill is one of the best debaters in Parliament.

Where it starts to get interesting is that while Bill has to both defend National's record over the past nine years, but also argue for why National deserves an historical fourth term. Jacinda gets to attack National's record without the burden of having been a party of Helen Clark's Labour Government, which seems to have been an issue that weighed down both Goff and Cunliffe, as well as relentlessly promote Labour's vision for New Zealand.

I've written before about the importance of values and identity in determining who voters are going to favour. I think that's really going to come to the fore in tonight's debate. Debate viewers will want to hear what Jacinda's values are, and what her vision is for the country is and addressing the key issues facing New Zealanders. They won't necessarily expect policy specifics from her, though she'll have a few to offer. Policy will play a less important role in this first debate as, despite all the media coverage, she's still an extremely new leader for Labour and many will still be wanting to see if she understands their concerns, and if she shares their values and identity. Voters will be willing to give Jacinda and Labour a chance if they believe they'll do the right thing by them, even if they're not entirely sold on, or aware of Labour's policies yet.

Bill, on the other hand, faces a different challenge. While being Minister of Finance for eight years meant he was largely in John Key's shadow in terms of public life, those watching tonight have known Bill for a relatively long time. Whether it's from his time in the previous National Government, his prior leadership of the National Party, or the past nine months as Prime Minister. Viewers generally already know who Bill English is, what his values are, and whether they think he understands the issues facing them. What they want to see from this debate is what he's going to do about those issues that are important to them. Bill has to be able to articulate policies in a way that not only engages viewers, but also convince viewers that a fourth-term for National is a better alternative than giving Labour a crack.

This is where Bill's problem lies. Television debates are not good platforms to talking about policy, and they are fantastic platforms for vision and value statements. In the cut and thrust of a debate, policy specifics get lost as people, especially commentators, focus on style over substances, and the eternal quest for that one zinger that finishes an opponent off.

On the topic of debate zingers, I fear National and Bill may have already used their best one too soon. I can see why they used "Hard working New Zealanders are not an ATM for the Labour Party" at the campaign launch to rev up the party faithful, but it's also the sort of line that would have put Jacinda on the back foot during a debate in a similar manner to how John Key's "Show me the money" line badly tripped up Phil Goff in 2011. One clear way for Bill to halt Jacinda's momentum would've been to deliver that line during the debate, where it would be a an attack on the Labour Party and it's policy rather than attack Jacinda personally.

Jacinda and Labour have approached these debates very carefully. Jacinda was essentially missing in action from Parliament during the final two sitting weeks as Labour purposefully kept her away from Question Time and General Debates on Wednesdays. Their logic was simple - to deny Bill a chance to spar one-on-one with Jacinda during Question Time so he would be less prepared during the debates. Jacinda had to be in Parliament on Tuesdays for Labour's caucus and to make an obligatory appearance in Question Time, but then hit the campaign trail early.

The other point to note is that in first debates it's usually the challenger who wins. David Cunliffe managed this in 2014, Mitt Romney did so against Barack Obama in 2012, and John Key did the same to Helen Clark in 2008. Incumbents often bounce back in the second debate, as those examples also demonstrate, and by the third viewers are probably sick of debates!

Backing Bill rallies against Jacindamania

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Taking a quick look at the headline Facebook statistics for this week it looks like Bill English might have gotten some of his groove back. While Jacinda Ardern is still trucking along at roughly the same clip as she was the previous week in terms of Facebook growth, Whereas last week the growth gap between the two was approximately 3,200, this week it's halved to about 1,550.

Looking back through Bill English's Facebook page last week, I can't see anything that particularly stood out in terms of performance, though my guess is that he benefitted from the relatively positive economic outlook in the PREFU. There were a few good posts, like his Facebook live and a couple of other out and about posts, but nothing that I'd describe as a runaway success. Though I think Bill did miss a trick when visiting Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Wellington not to ram home the point that under Labour's proposed international student crackdown, Le Cordon Bleu would cease to exist as upwards of 90% of its students are overseas students who wouldn't qualify under Labour's policy.

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Looking at the raw numbers you can see that while Jacinda is closing the gap on Bill English, with four weeks to go he likely has a big enough of a lead, and enough fan growth of his own to maintain a lead. That is unless Jacinda has an absolutely blinder in the debates. It's also worth noting that while not registering the thousands of new page likes that Jacinda or Bill are managing, David Seymour is doing very well over the longer term, which I believe was driven by his attacks on Meteria Turei earlier this month.

Parties 20 to 27 August.png

The party page side of things paints a much different picture. Labour's growth lead over National only shrunk slightly to around 2,000 likes (versus 2,200 for the previous week), and The "We don't want to do political advertising" Opportunities Party continues to binge, ironically, on Facebook advertising to drive their growth as demonstrated it the table below.

Parties 20 to 27 August Table.png

National's growth did double week on week, and like Bill English's seemed to peak over the middle of the week. National did manage a few very good posts about the positive economic growth prospects, very much playing to their base, mid-week which appear to have driven their success. As is often put, any day talking about the economy is a good day for National and this definitely seems to be the case last week with the PREFU.

Interaction Rates 20 to 27 August.png

Looking at interaction rates per post, nothing much has changed in terms of the leaders or parties relative to each other, rather the rates have edged back from the previous week as the campaign entered into a bit of a phoney war period prior to this sprint in the final four weeks.

The most important graphs you'll see today

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As of 20 August 2017 the Labour Party overtook the National Party in terms of Facebook likes, a position they hadn't been in since 22 September 2014. At it's height, the gap between the two parties was around 18,000 page likes, as at the time of writing Labour is now approximately 400 likes ahead. Having been 200 ahead overnight.

National has enjoyed two significant boosts in the past year, in September of 2016 and from December through to January 2017 following Sir John Key's resignation and Bill English becoming leader and Prime Minister.

Labour's two boosts are from Parliamentary paid advertising just before the three month Regulated Period kicked in, and then from Jacinda Ardern becoming Labour leader at the start of this month.

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When you look at party leaders over a similar period (unfortunately my analytics tool can only pull data from September 2015 for most of them) you can clearly see the moments Bill English became Prime Minister and Jacinda Ardern became leader of the Labour Party.

Jacinda's rate of growth is now trailing off from the initial boost she received, but she's still growing by about 3,200 page likes more than Bill English each week. Assuming the rate of growth over the past week is more indicative of the campaign period itself, Jacinda will be just shy of 100,000 page likes by the election, while Bill will be around 107,000. Looking back at 2014's data, neither John Key or David Cunliffe seemed to enjoy a bounce from debates, but then again those debates didn't set the world alight, so a clear debate win for Jacinda could make a big difference for her.

As I've mentioned before, Facebook page likes aren't going to win you an election, but insofar that the more you have, the more people you can reach, and the morale boosting effect of knowing you are more popular than your opposition will have some impact on how you perform.

If you're curious where we sourced our data and graphs from from check out Quintly. It's an easy to use social media analytics tool that takes a lot of the hassle out of visualising your social media data.

Will Labour's water tax cost them the election?

Despite Labour and Jacinda Ardern's spectacular rise in the polls over the past week, National and Bill English don't need to panic. Other than National continuing to focus on New Zealand's economic success, Jacinda's announcement of a water tax on commercial water users might just, in combination with the threat the Green Party poses to regional infrastructure projects, cost Labour their chance of forming the next government.

On the surface Jacinda Ardern's announcement that Labour will introduce a commercial water tax seems like a sensible one. People generally didn't seem thrilled about overseas bottling companies paying next to nothing to bottle up water and ship it offshore. Had the tax been targeted at them, it mightn't have ticked all the boxes for environmental groups, but it would have effectively scratched an itch that was bothering New Zealand.

The problem was Labour not only want to extend the tax to all commercial water users, including farmers who they've hit with a double whammy of plans to introduce new restrictions on farming methods without lifting the prohibitions on technology (like genetically modified organisms) that could help achieve this.

What Labour also assumed was a sensible policy move of saying that they won't commit to a tax figure on water until after the election when they meet with stakeholders, has turned out to be a terrible political move. It's already being seen by our primary sector as a disingenuous ploy to avoid a hard conversation about it on the campaign trail. It stinks of being both a policy that has been poorly thought out and of leaving the door open for this to become a massive tax on agricultural activity.

Labour has left the door open for National severely punish them not only in provincial New Zealand, but also in the mortgage beltway. To illustrate this, just look at how in just a few hours after the announcement, Labour had already lost control of the framing of the announcement:

Notice a theme? Water tax, water tax, water tax. Labour's "royalty" is already framed as a not only a tax, but a tax that will decimate our farmers and provincial economies, as well as hitting mortgage belt Middle New Zealand in the pocket with higher prices for dairy and produce.

In my mind, National there are three things National needs to do from this:

  1. Make a commitment to provincial New Zealand that National won't tax the agricultural sector for water use and promote the hell out of it before Winston Peters and New Zealand First can get in.
  2. Run a campaign targeting those provincial electorates pointing out the threat to their livelihoods if Labour won and did introduce the water tax combined with the threat the Greens could also pose if they forced a Labour government to cancel crucial irrigation and regional infrastructure projects.
  3. Target the Middle New Zealand mortgage belt with a campaign pointing out the potential and significant price rises to everyday (and healthy!) foodstuffs that the combination of Labour's water tax and other policies could have.

If you doubt this approach will work, take a look at the Mediscare campaign that the Australian Labor Party ran in their 2016 election. Despite some pretty dubious claims made and methods used by the ALP, it's widely credited with helping bring Bill Shorten within a whisker of an unprecedented victory. The advantage National has in this regard is that, unlike the ALP, Jacinda and Labour have made the commitment that water will be taxed, and left the door wide open for speculation about the potential impact of that.

This is where social media can play an important role in turning around this type of policy attack content very quickly so that you're capitalising on the issue being fresh in people's minds. Already National's Nathan Guy has enjoyed amazing success by posting a video of his fantastic speech to the House from Wednesday's General Debate to Facebook. In less than 24 hours the video has already been watched by 43,000 people, shared 412 times, and has resonated hugely well with those involved in the primary sector.

Given that National doesn't want to make the mistake that Labour and Helen Clark did in 2008 of going after the personality and popularity of the opposition leader, this type of wedge issue not only ties in perfectly with their overall narrative. National want's to tell people that they're the party that's delivering economic success for New Zealand, so something like this will really hits home for many peopl;e about the danger that a Labour/Green government would pose to that success. It's a policy based attack, Labour's made a key mistake in launching an incomplete policy and losing control of its farming, and National has a really good chance to turn this into an issue that could cost Labour badly.

Labour and Jacinda surge in the polls

What an incredible two weeks in politics it's been! Andrew Little gone as Labour leader, Meteria Turei resigning as Green co-leader, and now polls from Newshub and a leaked UMR poll that show Labour has surged in the polls, and Jacinda Ardern has rocketed right up to be level pegging with Bill English in the preferred Prime Minister stakes.

Obviously Jacinda Ardern has been not just a circuit breaker, but a game-changer for Labour. Her ascension has hit the Greens at the same time that Meteria Turei's leadership was being called into question, and appears to have been a double blow that has caused the Green Party to shed support. At the same time, on the surface of it, it looks like New Zealand First has lost support to Labour too, with National only down 0.8 points in the Newshub poll.

At first glance I, along with many others, assumed that it was Jacinda Ardern taking votes off the Greens and New Zealand First. But the more I've thought about it, I'm not entirely sure that's the case. I can see why Jacinda would reclaim support from the Greens where she'd get back some of the former Labour supporters that Andrew Little had lost to them, but I'm still not quite sure why as much of New Zealand First's support would go her way as initially appears to be the case.

What I've since released is that there's another possibility, that it might be more likely that there's been a significant number of undecided voters in these polls who have come off the fence in support of Jacinda. My understanding is that these polls usually just report on decided voters, leaving undecideds out of the final numbers presented (though I'm not 100 per cent sure this is the case). What might be motivating the movement of these undecideds is that they perceive Jacinda as having the ability to not just to be a very capable leader, but also to transform Labour into a party they can support. They identify with her values, her identity, and her brand, in a way that they just couldn't with Andrew Little. 

I've arrived at this conclusion mainly because I can see there being two logical places for Jacinda to get already committed voters from - the Greens and National. The Green voters she'd get back are the disenfranchised Labour supporters who didn't rate Andrew Little, the National voters she'd win are those in the centre ground who turned out to vote for Helen Clark in 1999, 2002, and to a lesser extent in 2005, and who I think Jacinda has a very strong appeal to.

Given that National and Bill English's support hasn't budged much in either of the polls I linked to in the first paragraph, I think New Zealand First might be leaking its support to National. What I think is happening here is that conservatives who have gravitated to Winston Peters over the past year and returning "home" to National in the face of Labour's recovery. Jacinda, meanwhile is broadening Labour's support both at the expense of the Greens and National's centre-block, and bringing in those undecideds I already mentioned, so National's loss of support to Labour is masked to some extent by gaining back voters from New Zealand First.

At this stage it's all instinctual guesswork on my part, but I've asked Newshub's Political Editor Patrick Gower if he can shed any light on the matter, as Newshub's polling data bank doesn't reveal what the undecideds were in each poll. We'll wait to see if more details come out in the coming days.

A quick comparison - Bill English vs Jacinda Ardern's first days as leader on Facebook

Blogger Patrick Leyland this week wrote a very interesting piece Jacinda Ardern's and the Labour Party's sudden social media rise which, while extremely impressive, does need some context put around it. So I thought I'd do a quick bit of analysis myself by comparing her first five days as leader with Bill English's first five days back in December of 2016.

Even this doesn't tell the full story. While Bill English's page grew by 121.7% over those five days vs 19.6%, the relative interaction rate (that is the number of interactions by number of posts by average page like size) was much closer, with Bill English hitting 5.2% of his fan base engaging with his posts over those first five days versus 6.9% for Jacinda Ardern. With all this in mind, it's useful to think of the bigger picture around each leadership change:

Jacinda Ardern's rise

  • Replaced an unpopular Labour leader
  • Speculation about change occurring in media for months  before hand
  • Change occurred two months before an election
  • Had the largest Facebook page of any sitting Labour MP (58,400) 
  • Labour Party Facebook fans historically interact with content at a much higher rate (Online Activists)

Bill English's rise

  • Replaced a popular National Party leader and Prime Minister
  • John Key's resignation completely unexpected
  • Change occurred two weeks before Christmas
  • Had a very small Facebook page prior to John Key's resignation (12,800 fans)
  • National Party Facebook fans historically interact at a much lower rate with content (Quiet Tories)

 

It's important to understand this context when comparing the two leaders as it helps provide a much more useful comprehension of what's going on.

Looking at the data and thinking about the background of it all, it's made me realise is that Andrew Little's brand wasn't just toxic in terms of his own popularity and ability to reach out to voters, but that he was collectively dragging down the Labour Party and its MPs too. His stepping down has effectively removed that burden from the Labour Party and its seeing the benefits now.

Because if there was one thing that did strike me over my three years at Parliament, it was how poorly the Labour Party did online post the 2014 election. Whereas the Greens and Winston Peters both did well - Winston Peters in particular - Labour and Andrew Little seemed to be stuck firmly in neutral.

As to whether this first week spike translates into sustained momentum for Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party remains to be seen. As I wrote back in Brand Bill vs Brand Jacinda, getting the right leader is only half the battle for Labour. Beyond that there are serious structural and personnel issues that they won't be able to address prior to the election, so the extent to which she can reverse the damage that's already been done is difficult to judge.

Brand Bill vs Brand Jacinda - Game on

Yesterday I said that Jacinda Ardern becoming leader of the Labour Party could be the circuit breaker the party so badly needs to get its campaign back on track. Now that it's happened, it's time to look at what Jacinda offers that could give her the ability to succeed where Andrew Little failed.

I've already covered off how much more popular Jacinda is on social media than Andrew was (essentially twice as popular on Facebook and four times as popular on Twitter), and in the last 24 hours she's already added an extra 4,000 new likes which is a fantastic result. As I mentioned yesterday, this gives her a significant advantage over her predecessor in reaching more people organically without having to spend money on promoting posts.

I think what's more important though are the personal brands of both Bill English and Jacinda Ardern and how they contrast to each other.

Looking back to 2008, one thing that worked very well for John Key was the contrast between his personal brand of ambition, charisma and confidence, and Helen Clark's brand of stability, experience and stoicism, and this year we're finally seeing a contrast between the two party leaders, something that Andrew Little wasn't able to achieve.

The problem for Little was that his personal brand was remarkably similar to Bill English's. Both were effectively competing for the mantle of being a traditional Kiwi bloke, with the primary difference being that English traded on his rural farming background, while Little traded on his urban union background. Unfortunately for Little, John Key had been so good at occupying this position that a significant part of his brand goodwill rubbed off on Bill English, meaning Little's personal brand was trying to compete in a marketplace already dominated by an established player. In many respects, trying to "out bloke" either Key or English was always going to be a losing strategy for Andrew Little.

This is where Jacinda Ardern's personal brand comes into play. She's not trying to compete with Bill English on the traditional bloke front, rather she has her own, very successful, personal brand as an ambitious and compassionate urban liberal. Whereas Andrew Little's brand was too close to that of Bill English's, and thus struggled to get noticed, Ardern's personal brand is a stark contrast, and that's going to help it instantly get traction.

Out of interest, I did an exercise where I listed the brand qualities I attached to each leader:

Brand Jacinda

  • Youth focused
  • Intelligent
  • Energetic
  • Fresh
  • Urban liberal
  • Ambitious
  • Media savvy
  • Compassionate
  • Values driven

Brand Bill

  • Experienced
  • Intelligent
  • Stability
  • Tested
  • Ambitious
  • Strong work ethic
  • Kiwi bloke
  • Rural conservative
  • Values driven

What struck me is that both leaders' brands share several traits. They're both intelligent, they're both motivated by values that are important to them, they're both ambitious, and these are all attributes that mark them out as leaders. Where they differ, as I've alluded to earlier, is the very publicly visible parts of their brands, it's Bill's experience against Jacinda's youth focus and energy, it's Jacinda's urban liberalism against Bill's rural conservatism, it's Bill's competence and strong work ethic against Jacinda's sublime media skills and fresh face.

Jacinda Ardern absolutely offers a circuit breaker for Labour, but it's important to keep in mind that Labour's problems do go much deeper than just the leadership. The party does have fundamental structural issues that have gotten them into this mess. For instance, the leadership primary process that delivered them both David Cunliffe, Andrew Little, and all the subsequent staffing and policy disasters that have followed it. Unfortunately for Labour, seven and a half weeks away from an election isn't enough time to fix those underlying problems.

But at the very least, with Jacinda as leader, they've turned a significant corner and will make this year's election a knife-edge result

Election 2017 Facebook stocktake - or how Labour abandoned Brand Little

Facebook is the social media channel of choice for politicians and political parties. The reasons are pretty simple:

  • A more representative audience of New Zealand
  • Superior audience reach
  • Comprehensive content tools
  • More mature advertising platform
  • Better ability to convert post engagement to political engagement
  • Ties into Instagram.

Facebook's user base in New Zealand has reached 2.9 million active users per month, with around two-thirds of those using it every day. Twitter usage statistics are much harder to come by, but seem to indicate around 500,000 accounts in New Zealand, but the number who are active on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis is much harder to find. Judging by international trends, it's likely to be as little as 5% - 10% of that number are online on a daily basis, with even fewer bothering to tweet (leading to discussions being dominated by just a handful of very vocal users). Not all is lost for Twitter, as its usage does seem to be dramatically improving in Australia.

So with that in mind, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the massive impact that John Key's resignation had on the social media playing field. In an instant the National-led Government went from having the largest political Facebook page for the country's most popular Prime Minister in living memory, to not having it.

Comparison of major political Facebook pages in New Zealand as at 4 December 2016, the day before John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

Comparison of major political Facebook pages in New Zealand as at 4 December 2016, the day before John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

As you can see from the above, John Key's Facebook page dwarfed all others in the country, bringing with it an ability to organically (non-paid) reach a pretty massive audience.

The raw numbers were:

  • John Key 248,890
  • Greens 90,332
  • Winston Peters 69,660
  • National 64,048
  • Labour 52,283
  • Andrew Little 28,866
  • Bill English 13,361

The net result though is that losing John Key as the major Facebook presence was always going to leave a massive hole that needed filling. I knew from the successful election 2014 just how important Facebook was in terms of reaching voters (more on that in the future), so the challenge was set to minimise the loss of the John Key page and build the new Prime Minister's page up to be as large as possible while still maximising opportunities to get targeted content in front of relevant audiences.

Comparison of political Facebook pages as of the commencement of the Regulated Period, three months out from polling day.

Comparison of political Facebook pages as of the commencement of the Regulated Period, three months out from polling day.

What you can see here is a pretty incredible turnaround in little more than six months. It was always going to be a challenge to overhaul the Green Party within that time, but to come within a whisker of being the largest political page in the country in such a short period of time took a pretty amazing effort to achieve.

Relative to 2014 it's a bit of a mixed bag. Around 23 June 2014 (the only statistics I have available) John Key was around 148,000 likes, the Greens around 48,000, Winston and Labour both at 15,000, National at 13,000, and Cunliffe was somewhere in the order of 12,600. The big difference being that at the start of the 2014 Regulated Period, John Key was a dominant Facebook presence, whereas National lagged behind everyone. Fast forward to 2017 and while Key is gone, National is larger than Labour and has significantly closed the gap on the Greens.

There is one difference for Bill English versus John Key though. For John Key many of his page likes were what I referred to as "legacy likes". They were people who had liked his page years earlier, but didn't interact with it at all and, as a result, were unlikely to see his content. Bill English has the advantage now that nearly all of his likes are relatively fresh, meaning there's more of a chance they'll see and engage with what he posts.

One thing did strike me over this period though, and admittedly struck me well before then too, was just how little Labour seemed to invest in Andrew Little. Around the Wellington beltway people suspected for a while that Labour had just decided Andrew Little was never going to be appealing, and so instead focused on their own Party brand and promoting Jacinda Ardern as the face of Labour. The lack of growth in Little's Facebook page lends credence to this.

Facebook page like growth from 4 December 2016 through to 23 June 2017, note Andrew Little off to the right.

Facebook page like growth from 4 December 2016 through to 23 June 2017, note Andrew Little off to the right.

And if you're curious, here's the raw numbers:

  • Bill English 85,691
  • Labour 12,119
  • National 11,350
  • Winston Peters 9,756
  • Greens 9,180
  • Andrew Little 4,720

As to how Bill English did so well? That's a trade secret. Becoming Prime Minister obviously helps. But what's really interesting here is the complete non-performance of Andrew Little. When you delve behind the headline numbers, it's easy to understand why. Over that six month period Andrew Little posted just 156 times, versus 342 for Bill English, 423 for the Labour Party, 262 for the National Party, 350 for the Greens, and 195 for Winston Peters.

It's clear that Labour is putting all their effort into promoting Brand Labour rather than Brand Little. In my mind that approach works when you're the Green Party, when you know that you're not going to supply a Prime Minister, so instead the focus is less on the leader and more on the collective whole. But when you're one of the two main parties, the approach makes next to no sense. On a fundamental level, the Party Vote component of MMP is the closest New Zealand gets to a Presidential style election, where I believe that vote is driven by how much someone likes a Party leader, with the exception of the Greens who have always had a much stronger party brand than individual brand.

Herein lies Labour's problem come 23 September. They simply haven't invested the time, effort, or money into developing Andrew Little's online profile, so they're going into the campaign with one arm very firmly tied behind their back.

Labour's approach was also betrayed in a recent Fairfax story on political social media:

A spokesman for Andrew Little said the party was "very active on twitter, facebook and instagram" as effective platforms "to connect to people of all ages".

"We're really excited by the possibilities that social media offers to help us explain Labour's story to voters.

"We're very happy with the engagement we get from people, but we're continually looking at creative ways to improve the way we communicate to voters and we expect to roll out some innovative approaches in this regard during the election campaign."

What that quote says to me is that they're placing the Labour Party before Andrew Little in their social strategy, and in a campaign where Andrew Little and Bill English are going to be pitted head-to-head on a regular basis, it seems like an odd strategy given the nature of modern campaigns.

Of course, having a large Facebook following isn't ever going to win you the election, but it makes it much easier to get your message out to a much larger audience. Page likes have an element of being a bit of a vanity metric, in that it's nice to have a larger Facebook page than your rivals, but the real benefit is that it enables you to reach more people without spending on ads.

Where that matters in an election campaign is that you can guarantee a relatively large audience will see your daily out and about posts, and instead focus all your paid advertising on the tailored messaging you need to reach specific target audiences.

All of this also begs the question of what position would Labour be in if Jacinda Ardern was the leader. She's more active on Facebook, has a larger number of page likes, and while she hasn't grown that presence as much as Andrew Little over the past six months, she doesn't have control of Labour's Leader's office budget. Yet...