Winning matters

I’ve been absent for a while, and am still pretty busy but will endeavour to write more often through the election cycle.

This post is just to correct a misunderstanding that persists in some circles about the debate between John Key and Phil Goff, hosted by The Press in Christchurch (highlights here). The conventional wisdom, with which I agree, is that Goff performed very strongly through the first half (re Christchurch), and into the second half (on more general topics) up until the point at which Key challenged him on Labour’s costing, at which point he lost it because he simply couldn’t rebut the allegation that there was a $14 billion deficit hole in Labour’s policy platform. Labourites, however, have complained that this was unfair, that Key’s numbers were made up, that Goff couldn’t produce figures that hadn’t been properly worked out, or that nobody watches the debates anyhow so it doesn’t matter. These claims might be right; some of them certainly are. But it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference: the task was to win the debate, and Goff did not win the debate.

This is the point, though: it doesn’t matter if a leader’s debate is watched by only 100 people if as one of those people is the political editor of a major news outlet.

Winning a leader’s debate in itself doesn’t change people’s minds. Few people watch them, and most who do have already made up their minds and will interpret even the most epic fails as wins (go back and read the Daily Kos response to the ‘Dean Scream’; or for a more immediate example, see John Pagani). There’s a bunch of research been done on this, and the headline finding is that debates have a significant influence only on the politically naïve. For the most part, leader’s debates are about arousing the true believers and persuading the pundits, who will then report the outcome of the debate, which in turn provides signals to the voters about who has advantage, momentum, mad chops, political competence, and so on — including but not limited to who has the better policies. By failing to show John Key (and the rest of the nation) the money, Goff lost the debate, which puts him on the losing side in terms of all those factors — compounding an existing and well-documented leadership deficit. It doesn’t matter if he’s right — if he can’t demonstrate he’s right we’re entitled to believe he’s not. It’s not as if Key shut him down — he was afforded very generous opportunities to make his case, and he failed (or refused) to do so.

What has happened with the “$14 billion” over the past 48 hours is the system working as intended, filtering our presumptive leaders for basic political and institutional competence. Because we are entitled to demand basic political and institutional competence from our leaders. Not only that, we should demand it; and the fact that people — Labour activists in particular — have not demanded it this past 3 years is part of why we’re looking at another three years of John Key as PM.

John (and Jordan Carter, the MPs, Phil himself) and others who have picked apart Key’s back-of-the-envelope figures, insisted that it was more responsible to check and recheck the PREFU numbers before saying anything miss the point of a debate — it’s about winning under the hot lights of the public glare, not about being technically correct in the cool light of the following Friday. You have to be right enough that you don’t look as if you won on false pretences, but the task is to win, and to maintain the momentum of the campaign, the aura of leadership.

Goff failed. Barring some massive set of exigencies, that’s probably the election.


6 thoughts on “Winning matters

  1. Ifeel disappointed and pissed off for the left that the Labour Party have allowed this to pass, a blind man could have seen it coming
    But the aspiring leaders have held back presumably on the grounds that “they don’t want to be seen as losers’ of this election
    Ok, so no one wants a porn addict, misogynist or people who can’t fill in there own business papers running the country but surely somewhere in the Labour party we have a real leader who is competent

  2. Welcome back Lew. Your contributions were sorely missed.

    It seems that Labour is putting out some difficult and politically unpalatable policy choices now as part of a strategy of playing to lose this election. That way, after Goff is rolled and some of the deadwood swept away in the wake of the defeat, a regenerated Labour can use the next three years to hammer home the need to be upfront about the hard choices that National will inevitably have to make. In the measure that National continues to implement unpopular policies under the mantle of fiscal prudence (budgetary restraint being, as Keith Ng mentioned, the “new black”), and given that these policies will exacerbate income differentials, emmigration and other forms of social anomie (to say nothing of National’s lacklustre response to human and natural diasters), Labour can use the “I told you so” moment as a springboard for the 2014 campaign. It may not be a positive message but its honesty might resonate better with the electorate down the road.

    Bottom line: sometimes playing to lose is a better long-term strategy than always trying to win because immediate defeat relieves a party of the pressures of governing as it reconstitutes itself and continues its attacks from the other side of the aisle. In the measure that things do not get significantly better in the next three years, that leaves Labour as the default option simply because it appears to be more honest about how to deal with the hard policy road ahead, and appears to have a more “humane” (if that is the right word) approach to the dislocating effects of expanding market-led approaches into the field of public policy.

  3. While Labour has to take responsibility for its own stuff ups on the campaign trail I maintain this election if won by National, will be partly by default.
    • WFF payments endure, a number of households only remain viable due to this middle class welfare initiated by Labour.
    • disillusioned and frankly picked on young people and marginalised citizens constitute a significant group of likely non voters.
    • a ‘poodle’ media and bent polls, may Farrar and Espiner be among the first to be carjacked once the welfare state and public service has been properly gutted.
    • The individualistic world view, and small business/self employed mind set of many kiwis has been exacerbated under neo liberalism. “It’s all about me” becomes “my opinion is worth something even if it is uninformed”

    When does buying into the presidental “wheres the beef” type of political circus end? Does Lew subscibe to the scenario that if the PM and Banksie meet for coffee it means pushing the go button for Epsom voters?

    As for the future of our country this is a fork in the road election that comes only once a generation. Nationals industrial policy is a direct off spring of the Chilean model as outlined here before. These guys are playing for keeps in foreign policy and ownership of the economy.

  4. This is the point, though: it doesn’t matter if a leader’s debate is watched by only 100 people if as one of those people is the political editor of a major news outlet.

    Correct. Every perception is reliant on a tiny unelected cabal employed by the benefactors of right-wing policy.

    If the roles had been reversed in this situation, the story would either never have been reported, or downplayed. Nothing new here, just far, far more blatant since around 2004.

  5. Pablo, thanks.

    You make a good point about the long game, but Labour has also jeopardised that by referring to the election as a referendum on its core policies of CGT, no asset sales and so on. It’s nothing of the sort, but if they lose National will be able to claim that these policies were rejected by the electorate and this will make them difficult to implement in future. Furthermore, even a noble losing strategy undertaken with the aim of influencing the future policy discourse — as Goff has done by proposing an increase to the super age — is better conducted competently than not.

    Tiger Mountain,

    Do I need to run a banner on all of these posts that goes “DESCRIPTIVE, NOT NORMATIVE”? It’s not so much that I love the status quo that I recognise that it is the status quo. If Key and Banks do a chummy photo-op in Epsom a few days out from the election then you’re damned right it constitutes an endorsement, and whether you or I like it or not makes not a blind bit of difference.

    ak, I guess you missed the bit where Labour comprehensively won the battle of the Opening Night Addresses (and garnered considerable reporting of same), and where Goff exceeded expectations in the first debate by achieving parity or maybe a slight edge against a heavily-favoured Key — and that was also reported. Or the fact that even reports that discuss how Key demolished Goff with the “show me the money” line often concede that Goff was the stronger performer through most of the second debate — including the editorial by Andrew Holden of The Press which declared Goff the winner in spite of his failure to show the money?


  6. Nope. Saw all that Lew. Trouble is, also saw just about everthing else over many years. Significant fact about the examples you mention is that everyone else also saw the opening address: as an unadulterated and paid-for advert made by Labour, lies, spin or filtering could never work. And nope, while some reports might have “often conced(ed) that Goff was the stronger performer”, nope, that’s not the dominant message that got out from so many other reports and headlines. Sorry mate, seen it first hand over many years (you know how and where), had it admitted to my face, had a brother in the business all his life, and the logic for it is crystal clear and overwhelming. You’re right, no use whinging about it, but denying it precludes ever overcoming it.

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