The University of Auckland’s Jennifer Lees-Marshment explains why voting in this election is more important than ever

Elections determine who runs the country, but people often wonder whether their vote will really matter. In this election it definitely will. It is a political marketplace full of uncertainty – even before the campaigns were launched we had resignations from Labour, Green and United Future Party leaders.

The core of this turbulence is that neither major party has, as yet, captured the support of a majority of the public. National and Labour have equal but different strengths and weaknesses.

National are good on delivery, but there’s little point delivering a product people do not want. Like all parties in power, they have lost touch after three terms. Failing to show empathy with the challenges people are facing on issues such as housing was a big mistake. And marketing Bill English like John Key instead of creating ‘Brand Bill’ was foolish. If they can find some way to convey they are in touch and offer three key dynamic, fresh policies they may do better, otherwise they are relying on their old record to get re-elected. If voters value delivery track record more than future promise this might work, but it’s a risk.

Labour, on the other hand, are in touch with voters’ concerns, and new leader Jacinda Ardern has focused on being positive and talking about Labour’s promises in key areas like health and education. The problem is their new shiny leadership product is only a month old. Is this enough to convince people that Labour can govern? Branding theory suggests it takes more time to build up a relationship with voters, and while Andrew Little succeeded in making dents in National’s reputation, he’d spent too much time talking about problems rather than solutions.

Even before Jacinda took over, I thought Labour had a chance of winning because they had developed the magic bullet of being in touch and responsive to voters’ concerns – the heart of a market-oriented strategy. But I also knew they were not seen as capable of delivering their promises. Is this any better under Jacinda Ardern? I’m not sure, in which case it will depend on whether Labour’s responsiveness or National’s competence is more important to voters.

One of the problems with marketing and politics is the limited choice of products to buy. If voters are not happy with either major party, they have limited alternative products to choose instead. NZ First’s rise in the polls this year reflects discontent with both major parties and NZ First’s tactical positioning in response. The Greens have undertaken effective re-branding and so may benefit from dissatisfied voters as well, but the Metiria Turei crisis may prevent National voters switching to Greens – and taking votes from Labour does not get them any closer to the Beehive.

Jennifer Lees-Marshment. Photo: Supplied

As a result, no one can predict the results of the 2017 New Zealand election.

While National was always ahead in the polls in the year before the campaign, Bill English’s ratings are not strong enough to predict a clear win. And the numbers have shown fluctuating fortunes for his competitors.

Furthermore, the results of recent elections around the world have defied prediction. Current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was predicted to lose to sitting PM Stephen Harper until about mid-way in the 2015 campaign. The majority of polls and political commentators did not predict Donald Trump to win the US presidency in 2016. Brexit was not supposed to happen and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did much better than expected in the snap UK election earlier this year.

One point of hope for Labour is that these elections suggest a triumph of passion and promises over delivery. The Canadian Conservatives under Harper, like the NZ National Party under English, had a superior track record of delivery but lost to the ‘sunnier ways’ of Justin Trudeau. Donald Trump appealed to populist wants, simplistic proposals and won out over Hillary Clinton’s carefully worked-out policies and superior delivery capabilities. Jacinda Ardern’s positive approach and responsiveness may yet win over National’s delivery competence and Bill English’s remoteness.

While uncertainty is bad news for politicians and strategists, the good news is your vote will definitely count. And furthermore, so will your voice through Vote Compass – an interactive civic engagement tool sponsored by the University of Auckland in partnership with the Electoral Commission and TVNZ’s 1News.

Vote Compass is designed to encourage voters to go online and complete a questionnaire which, in turn, will give a clear picture of voters’ priorities and concerns. It is by far the best way to hear in detail what people really think. It has already engaged more than 200,000 New Zealanders in discussing policy and politics and unlike previous data the results show health is the top issue for voters at this election.

So in the run up to this very important election – go online, use Vote Compass, watch out for the results on TVNZ and above all, make sure you vote … it will make a difference.

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