Opening a session on Labour’s campaign strategy at its congress on Saturday, the party’s campaign chairman and general secretary Andrew Kirton went for an understated introduction.
“The good news about this campaign is we’ve got a strategy – and we’re going to use it.”
That was perhaps a relief to delegates, given Labour’s disastrous showing in 2014.
But the party’s plan to turn out voters is more comprehensive than that sounds – demonstrated by the fact it invited media to a briefing the day before to proudly discuss its strategy.
Based on its current polling, Labour estimates it would get 720,000 votes out of the 2.4 million on offer, presuming an 80 per cent voter turnout (up from 550,000 votes in 2014).
Kirton said the party planned to grow its vote in two ways – trying to win over the 240,000 voters who backed National in 2014 but were open to supporting Labour, and the 200,000 voters “who we think like us” but didn’t vote at the last election.
The main focus at present was “growing our volunteer army” through its Community Action Network.
Labour had learned from Wellington Mayor Justin Lester’s successful campaign, with 40 per cent of his volunteers not members of the Labour Party.
Kirton said the party was operating a system based on 15 geographical “hubs” made up of multiple electorates.
Each hub was carrying out at least one door knock and one phone bank a week, with plans to steadily ramp up until that became one per electorate.
The party had already made over 50,000 phone calls and over 16,000 door knocks, up 79 per cent on the same period last election.
“I’m not sure we’ve been at this stage of the campaign and had that figure on screen of how many people we’ve talked to this far out from an election, so that’s really positive.”
Kirton said the party’s polling suggested housing, inequality, poverty, immigration and the economy were the issues of most concern to Kiwis – although he was keen to avoid taking an overly pessimistic slant.
“They don’t feel New Zealand is going to hell in a handbasket. New Zealanders are optimistic but there are a few issues they’re concerned about.”
Rob Salmond, a political data analyst for Labour, said while there was nothing new about targeting voters likely to back a party, the greater level of data now available meant it could be far more specific.
“We can target not just at the neighbourhood level, but at the street level, the house level and person level as well, so when you’re on the phone, you don’t need to call every number in a strong Labour area, because even if there is an area where 60 per cent of the people support Labour, even if you’re looking for volunteers, there’s still 40 per cent of calls where it’s not worth your time making.”
Using data gathered from the electoral roll, the census, public databases and party information, Salmond said Labour could calculate a person’s likelihood to vote, to vote Labour, and what may be the best way to win them over.
He displayed a map of Auckland Central broken down into “mesh blocks” – small geographical areas, showing both strong Labour and National areas and potential toss-ups.
“If somebody is a company director, living in a house and married to another company director, that might tell us something – but if they’re married to a health professional, that might tell us something a little bit different.
“All of that is guessing of course, we can’t know any of it for sure, but guessing on the basis of information is going to be better than guessing on randomness.”
Whereas the Australian Labor Party had a 64 per cent improvement in identifying Labour supporters when calling the top 10 per cent of their list, as opposed to all numbers, NZ Labour’s gains were 117 per cent (due to the greater population diversity and level of information here, rather than the quality of analysts).
Salmond said the party was working on a new statistical model to better define voters most open to changing their mind, both “attacking targets” – right-leaning voters who could be persuaded left – and “defensive targets” – left-leaning voters who were open to switching right.
Labour was also moving away from direct mail, focusing instead on conversations with people on the phone, at their doors or in the streets.
“A personal conversation with someone from Labour saying: ‘I’d love it if you voted Labour’ is massively more influential over a person than receiving a flyer in the mail.”
Data is crucial to that personal approach: he showed the audience a sneak peek of Labour Connect, a data tool allowing members to build lists of targets to persuade voters or get new volunteers.
Of course, fundraising is crucial to making all this happen – the best exhibit of which was a slide pledging “no wallet left behind”.
Kirton said the party’s fundraising was up 300 per cent compared to the same period in 2014.
A new, exclusive “President’s Club”, offering access to the party in exchange for donations, had already brought in an additional $70,000 despite only operating for several weeks.
The Victory for Labour scheme, based on membership with a monthly donation, was raising $30,000 a year, while the party’s online fundraising efforts had brought in more than $1 million over “the last few years”.
Of course, National is rapidly gathering money too, and will have a similarly elaborate operation.
And, as Salmond said, “all of this is useless” without the candidates and volunteers making the best use of the technology at their disposal.