Political Business

Lessons on political strategy

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Careers of NZ politicians 2014

Geoffrey Miller and I have put together an analysis of the pre-Parliament careers of MPs in the current Parliament.

We found remarkably few differences between the working careers of New Zealand politicians - ie. their careers don’t define their political allegiances.

And we found that around 30% of them have always worked in jobs related to politics.

Geoffrey Miller, who works at Otago University, reviewed the official biographies of Members of Parliament sitting in July 2014. He categorised the careers and work history of MPs prior to, and including, entering Parliament. 

The aim was to look for commonalities and patterns in the working history of MPs before they entered Parliament. We were particularly interested in whether there were differences between work experience within political parties, and between MPs and the general public.

Our assumption is that work experience and careers reflect the interests of the MP, and influence their decision-making and attitudes as MPs.

The main finding of this study is that no party has a career path which is dominant. Whether left wing or right wing, MPs in New Zealand’s political parties come largely from similar work history – professional employment in office work, requiring university education.  However, only 40% of New Zealanders have university qualifications.

The single biggest career across all parties is government. Fully 15% of MPs have worked as civil servants, parliamentary staffers, or in local government roles. If the government category is widened to encompass any politically related career, almost a third of MPs have worked in politics in some form before they entered Parliament. This excludes teaching.

A similar study was conducted by Mark Blackham in 2011. It found that National had more MPs with business and farming backgrounds. Labour had more MPs with education and union backgrounds. Common between all parties was that one fifth had careers almost solely in the sphere of government (government agencies, politics, advocacy groups). 


120 MPs were categorised (John Banks’ resignation means he was not included).

Careers were categorised by industry, sector and profession. We attempted to keep the categories similar to the previous study, and sufficiently broad to draw conclusions and make comparisons.

A main career was identified for each MP. We selected the profession, trade or sector which dominated their pre-parliament work experience.  The categorisation is subjective. MPs may differ with our conclusion about their work history. To reduce variation in selection we used the above rules, and monitored between us.

Some MPs have had several very different careers. These MPs were classified as “multiple”.

Main findings

  1. National MPs have had the broadest range of work experience. This was partly a by-product of having the most number of MPs, but was consistent when considered proportionately.
  2. No single career path is dominant to a statistically significant degree, in any party.

Differences between parties:

  1. National MPS  had the most experience in Agriculture and Business or Property Development with 12 MPs in each category
  2. Politics and education are the two main employment categories of Labour MPs.
  3. National is stronger on health backgrounds than Labour (6 MPs vs 3), and in legal experience (6 MPs vs 2). Labour’s two lawyers (David Parker and Raymond Huo) have both had prominent secondary careers.
  4. NZ First party has proportionately the most MPs with business backgrounds, especially small business (3 from 7 MPs).
  5. The dominant working history of Green Party MPs is in unions or activist agencies (6 MPs).
  6. Work experience only in government is the single most common career – right across all parties. 15% of MPs have worked as a civil servant, parliamentary staffer, or in local government. 11% have only ever worked in this category.
  7. 33% of MPs have worked in a career which could be seen as political before entering Parliament.


Filed under careers work experience jobs parliament career political career

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What to say about bad polls

The struggle of Labour Leader David Cunliffe and MP Annette King today to talk about falling public support for Labour illustrated an unhelpful defensiveness politicians have when discussing bad news.

It’s a very human problem - most of us find it difficult to admit to weaknesses. We are especially challenged when discussing our ‘popularity’.

The way politicians handle this is usually to say the polls don’t show what they find on the street when campaigning. I know from direct experience that this claim is usually a conscious lie, or an indication that their campaign work is contrived (ie. they’re meeting supporters).

Another claim is that there is only one poll that matters - the one on election day. This is a transparent effort to avoid the issue.

This is the line Annette King took. It sounded terrible - evasive and defensive.

The other main claim is that the polls are rubbish and/or deliberately skewed. This line can work, as it undermines credibility of the source, and when said with confidence, authority and some irreverence, signals that you deserve popularity. It can just as easily be seen as sour-grapes.

Here’s what I think politicians should say:

"I’m honoured to have the support of [x%] but I’m bothered that I have not yet gained the confidence of more voters. I’m listening to what they want for this country. I’m proposing that [insert main campaign line]. In contrast, my opponent is taking voter support for granted. I’d welcome voters taking another look at my policies. My opponent has been wrong many times this campaign, so a lot of  people aren’t very confident about their vote for [him]."

This approach:

  • acknowledges that you do have people who like you, which makes it possible for others to like you as well.
  • acknowledges the problem, which means you are honest.
  • shows deference to all voters, signalling you regard them as more important than yourself.
  • uses the opportunity to repeat the things you hope will appeal to wavering voters.
  • suggests that people should be uncertain about their support for the opponent, giving a moment for your attitude and policies to be reconsidered.

Filed under cunliffe annette king labour national comment opinion polls polls what to say about polls poularity what to say when not popular

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The kids are revolting

What we see in the InternetMana 'Fuck John Key' video is real people expressing real political emotions. Politicians shouldn’t be offended - they should be wondering what it takes to get the same reaction from their potential supporters.

The video reveals the sort of raw and raucous expression of opinion that occurs when you reach out to people - when you strike a chord.

The alarmed reaction from the commentariat and twitterati reveals the extent to which the ruling elite are simply not comfortable with real people being political.

And here lies the problem at the heart of the professional era of politics; the failure to understand or connect with the untidiness of real people.

Every politician secretly dreams of stirring an audience to chanting. But that requires emotion. And emotion has been sanitised from politicians, their policies, and even their interactions with the public.

Politics, or vote winning, is about inspiring and motivating. It’s an emotional exercise first, and an intellectual exercise second.

The thing about emotions is that they can be challenging… uncomfortable… risky.

This frightens and eludes most political operators because they fancy themselves as intellectuals. But even in this endeavour, they are self-limiting. They create political positions to satisfy their peers, not the public.

Politics ought to be emotional. And the ideas ought to spring from, or resonate with, the voters.

The results are not always pretty. But it’s damn well honest, and its very effective.

The chant was spontaneous. But the conditions for it were planned a long time ago. InternetMana will now ride that emotion.

Rather than fulminate, politicians should risk a bit of emotion for themselves. They might like it. The voters will like it.

Filed under fuck john key john key internet party dotcom political campaign campaigning emotions ruling elite twitterati

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Neuro science as strategy

My praise goes to Ed Miliband for the wisdom and courage to hire a neuro-scientist to help him connect with people.

For the first time in the professional political era, a politician has actually sought some professional help (ie. someone actually expert and versed in their field, rather than a beltway blusterer).

The initial result - a speech - showed that Miliband is still stuck in the narrow-minded formula of the beltway. 

The speech itself was okay. He was self-deprecating and less serious. His spinners have claimed he realised he had been too serious and policy-focused.

In the speech he criticised the harshness of politics and hailed his new ‘empathy’ strategy to reach out to people.

But it’s a strange sort of empathy that you feel the need to proclaim in a speech full of scripted jokes about yourself. It’s strange that you would proclaim this as a strategy at all.

If he had really listened and understood the point about empathy, we may not have seen a speech. Miliband would have been out meeting real people and listening.

If he felt compelled to stick to the safety of speeches, he would have changed their language subtly, not completely. He would have spoken about his experiences, or the related experiences of others.

Instead, empathy became a grandstanding symbol about the new “Ed” - a new T-shirt to wear then sit on the shelf along the others he’s tried.

Filed under miliband neuro scientist Political Symbolism political strategy science mind empathy speeches listening

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The private lives of politicians

In desperation political strategists clumsily attempt to show the ‘real person’ behind their client politician.

NZ Labour Leader David Cunliffe has just tried to come across as likable. The failed leader he replaced, David Shearer, tried to humanise himself and lull voters by guitar. The failed leader before him, Phil Goff, tried it with spades and motorbikes.

The back-story tactic is not exactly wrong. What science knows about people is that we assess character and trustworthiness by past actions, and a little about the company people keep.

But it fails largely because it is used by ham-fisted strategists as a one-off tactic, not a long term strategy, and too often at the point a politician is already failing.

You can see it in my list above of successive Labour leaders: they were desperate because voters appeared not to have initially connected with them.

In response, their strategists search to quickly establish the soul of the politician that should have been established a long time ago and over a long period. Frankly, by the time you’re doing an “inside the real politician” feature story, you’ve already lost.

It doesn’t work because it’s too late, but also because it’s too obvious. We all know from our personal experience what happens when we or others try too hard to be liked - it turns people off.

In setting out to make friends we do best when we take it slowly, gradually, with keenness to connect, but without apparent effort.

More than that though - what works in trying to connect with people is being interested in them, not trying to prove yourself.  What works is asking questions and listening to them.

But at this stage in their desperation, the politician is also too busy promoting their own ideas, and the back story is more of an attempt to show the ideas originate from an authentic ‘ordinary’ person.

The personality strategy has to start when the politician starts. It can’t be introduced later.

That’s because there’s one factor that people rate more highly than history and back story, in their assessment of political character: and that’s the right now.

People judge character most strongly on what is said and done right now.  Faced with a question, threat, issue, or opportunity today, how does the politician respond? What does their response say about their attitudes, ideology, philosophy and trustworthiness?

Politicians need to establish character based on how they act today. Your hobbies, friends, family and past are interesting, but they won’t save you if today’s judgement is deemed faulty.

Filed under cunliffe phil goff david shearer political character character back story personality profile Political Symbolism David Cunliffe personality family politicians past

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The worm works

The ‘worm’ is to return to the NZ election campaign this year, giving insight to reactions as people hear from politicians.

The technique shows voter reactions to political messages as a graphical line wriggling on a positive to negative axis.

It is derided by people who think they arrived at their own prejudices after long intellectual consideration, and don’t appreciate the suggestion that people process information instantly. 

The worm is fascinating because it reveals the ‘success’ of a political message as the audience receives it. This is the point at which all of us measure a message for its relevance to us, its usefulness, and the extent to which is confirms or confounds patterns of experience, or our existing bias and outlook on life.

This is the point at which a message is measured by the brain for rejection or storage. Strong positive or negative reactions also indicate an emotional response to the message, ensuring it is retained. Mild responses indicate assent or rejection, but without much chance of retention.

Political messages ought to be measured as they are received - because that is when people decide what to do with them.

Opponents of the worm make the mistake of thinking this reaction is shallow. But humans are better scientists that most pundits credit. Chemical-electric signals race around the brain at around 358 meters per second processing incoming information against the existing database. Within this time, the brain is arriving at decisions based not just on neurological processing, but psychological processing as well. That is, not just fact-based, but emotionally-based.

The decision-making is sub-conscious, but we are conscious of the results; thus we cheer or jeer at the politician or their message. The worm effectively measures that conscious expression.

There is much more to our scientific processing of information than this instant reaction. We constantly test our hypothesis about people and life and it evolves. But the worm never claims to measure this, and ignoring it out of misguided intellectual snobbery means you miss the most important moments in voters’ decision making. 

Being aware of an experiment effects the result, so participants are likely to over-react (and mechanisms for measuring can lead to bias). So I discount the highs and lows of the worm by about 25%. But the trend is still present, observable and valuable.

Pundits can dismiss instant reaction measurements if they like, but politicians do so at their peril: because getting past voters’ first millisecond processing barrier is the key to success.

Filed under worm polling campaign elections measurement political psychology voters

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Free the elections!

I have no sympathy for the lefties and greenies now getting caught by the same electoral laws they supported to cripple free expression during elections.

I detest electoral laws that regulate expression of political opinions; including those started by Labour and finished by National that require groups to register with the electoral commission to voice an opinion during the election, and to restrict what they can spend to do it.

These laws were proposed by people whose self-identity is that they are alternative, minority, poor, grass-roots and genuine. They are actually middle-class beltway types who just have a point of view, and have money to express it. Now they’re going to Court to effectively request an exemption based on who they are and what they support.

They have been caught by a law, and an Electoral Commission, that is blind in its application. It doesn’t distinguish between viewpoints, class of support, degree of self-righteousness, or origin of money.

But even though applied fairly, the law shouldn’t exist at all in a democracy that cherishes freedom of expression.

It exists because the greens and lefties originated it, supported it and hassled their peers in the beltway to get it through. They thought it would only apply to ugly insincere vested business and right wing interests.

Politicians really loved the idea because it kills public third party support for their opponents. They prefer an even debating field restricted to official political parties without the hassle of real people voicing their unsophisticated thoughts.

I totally support the right of Greenpeace to argue for an issue and spend money to do it. But when it mattered, they did not support the right to others to do the same.

It’s time for them to voice some truly liberal opinions: support public expression of dissent and support without restrictions.  

Filed under dissent liberalism electoral commission election 2014 election electoral law electoral reform money politcal spending greenpeace

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Corruption starts at home

Our nation’s culture of low corruption and civility is an accident of history that is under threat from its institutions.

It has been revealed that some policemen mis-categorised their region’s crime statistics.

The official police response has four main takeouts;

  1. the policemen were disciplined and the most senior of them has now left the police
  2. it was done because of a misunderstanding about categorisation
  3. it doesn’t matter because the impact was small
  4. it happened some time ago, has been dealt with, so they want to go back to ‘working with the community’.

This response does not work;

  1. if it was just a misunderstanding, why discipline them, and even suggest one left the Police force because of it. Maybe they didn’t leave the police for this reason then - so why try to make it part of the story?
  2. The impact may be small, but issue is that people who uphold the law and want to tell us what to do, have acted immorally to their own advantage.
  3. It may have happened some time ago, but that’s not relevant to the fact that it happened.
  4. You might want to go back to working with the community - but that’s us, and we want you to show you can be trusted. Belittling this transgression doesn’t give us confidence.

Research shows that when people see others get away with immoral actions they are more likely to act similarly.

That means the Police must be particularly severe on members who break rules and codes of conduct (internal or civil).

It means that the Police must not be in a hurry to kill this issue. They have a much higher duty than killing an annoying PR issue. They must take the opportunity to reinforce the low corruption culture that makes this country so livable.

Filed under police civility corruption low corruption culture

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Down-home works best when it’s real

I was fascinated at the lessons from the cooked-up story about the pizza delivery man making waves as a part-time libertarian senate candidate.

Sean Haugh - the Libertarian Party’s Senate nominee in North Carolina - is sitting at about 8% support, almost all achieved from a low budget YouTube campaign.

In a style reminiscent of Ross Perot, he produces campaign video clips railing at the incoherence of mainstream politics while sipping craft beers at a home bar. 

What is attractive about his style?

  1. It’s novel: there’s no cookie-cutter perfection to his delivery. He has a very unique form of verbal expression - distinctive and alluring.
  2. It’s new: he has new ideas, and attractive ways of comparing and contrasting that appear logical.
  3. It’s ordinary: his choice of beers, locations, clothes and expressions are conscious, but not self-conscious - and they connect. He is not claiming to be ‘everyman’, but his connections with ordinary life are closer than most politicians.
  4. it’s smart: he’s a clever and witty guy - coming up with ideas that voters can attach themselves to and use to justify their own dissatisfaction with the mainstream politicians.
  5. It counters the mainstream: his colourful approach, and his assertive pillorying of the main parties is possible because of the drab safeness of his opponents.
  6. It’s not too serious: there’s just enough levity in his material to signal that he doesn’t take himself too seriously - but just seriously enough to be worth a vote.

These are qualities found in many successful political challengers and underdogs, but don’t of themselves mean success.

The key is, as always, getting a very simple message out widely enough to run alongside the name and face, in an environment where voters are, or can be, motivated to change the incumbents.

I’m doubtful, for example, that a youtube campaign can break through to the masses without a massive amount of latent discontent among voters.

Sean will be interesting to watch.

Filed under sean haugh senate campaign carolina political traits leadership underdog grassroots youtube Political Campaign

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Sledge Pledges nice but never work

It’s common for politicians to attempt the moral high-ground, but because they live in a “them versus us” world, they rarely attain it.

A pledge by NZ’s Labour Leader David Cunliffe not to “sledge” (abuse of a personal nature) opponents this election was destroyed on the day he made it by one of his MPs, Clare Curran.

Curran told a student magazine that Prime Minster John Key was her least favourite MP, one National Minister was ‘nasty’, and other National MPs were ‘foul-mouthed’ and ‘homophobic’. 

Running a positive campaign is a feasible strategy, but Cunliffe’s ‘pledge’ turned strategy into public grandstanding. I’ve said it many times; strategies should be lived, not talked about publicly. Anyway, the pledge was going to be undermined the moment an MP got heated about their opponents. 

Many politicians approach politics tribally. They identify themselves with a group, and with its ideas. Because their livelihoods and egos depend on the success of the group, they willfully forget that quite reasonable people can have completely different ideas about how to live. To believe in the superiority of their idea, they denigrate those who don’t share it.

Research suggests this ‘better than others’ belief is more likely from left-leaning politicians than conservatives. So it was more likely that a sledge pledge from a party which preaches tolerance, diversity and peace would be undermined by members being nasty about fellow human beings.

Cunliffe’s idea was nice, but he should never have mentioned it publicly, and it was never going to work anyway.

Filed under sledging denigration criticism Political Motives sledge pledge pledge cunliffe curran Political Debate