Last night’s live TV leaders debate between Labour’s Chris Hipkins and National’s Christopher Luxon made clear the policy and leadership style differences between the two contenders to become New Zealand’s next prime minister.
But as TVNZ’s post-debate analysts tended to agree, neither candidate will have changed many minds – or reversed the main political poll trends since mid-year.
The so-called “bandwagon effect” describes how opinion polls can not only inform but sometimes influence electoral behaviour. Voters start aligning with whichever politician or party seems to be gaining support and momentum, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy effect.
Based on recent polling, this might seem to favour the National Party. But the rise of New Zealand First and Winston Peters, and the relative decline in support for the ACT Party, means there is still an unpredictable element to this election.
For Labour’s Chris Hipkins, it was important he not be perceived as a “dead man walking”. He probably managed that. But arguably, his situation remains more akin to someone attempting to thread a needle while running – a difficult and risky thing to do.
More than political theatre
But what leadership researchers call “followership” – in this case, voter attitudes, behaviours and expectations – matters greatly. So does the wider socioeconomic and cultural context in which a leader is operating. Weighing all these can help reveal how Hipkins is responding and performing as a political leader.
In a nutshell, his core challenge is to navigate adverse conditions in ways that rise above the mere theatrics of politics. He needs to connect with voter’s values and interests, not just their current mood.
Authenticity and fallibility
Hipkins is campaigning primarily on his and Labour’s claimed desire and ability to support the “ordinary Kiwi” – that traditional target of most political parties. His own background as the “boy from the Hutt”, along with his self-deprecating and pragmatic, centrist instincts, are important features of his appeal and credibility.
That pragmatism orients him to seek politically practical and achievable outcomes whatever the circumstances. The challenge, however, is to be both aspirational and positive while also not indulging unrealistic expectations.
Hipkins has also emphasised the importance he attaches to just being himself, acknowledging he’s not infallible. Describing the government’s COVID policies and some decisions that, with the benefit of hindsight, weren’t optimal, he has said:
And that means you don’t get everything perfect, and there’s no point being defensive about it – you just have to own it.
Good leaders, according to some research, are authentic and know their weaknesses, but also possess the virtues needed to exercise wise judgment. Overall, the more voters trust Hipkins as a “safe pair of hands”, the more likely he is to win their support.
Crafting a persuasive narrative
The flip side to Hipkins’ pragmatism is that by not being bolder with policy, he risks giving people too few reasons to vote for Labour. His “middle ground” approach gives more political oxygen to parties on the left and right offering more radical change proposals.
And while policies might be the focus of campaigns and debates, politics remains an emotional experience for many voters. The electoral mood becomes a significant factor. And, as one observer put it recently, the electorate is unusually “grumpy”.
Hipkin’s therefore needs to persuade undecided voters – and previous Labour voters thinking of voting for another party – to reassess any negative feelings they might have about Labour’s performance. He has to convince them their long-term material interests, rather than their current emotional state, will be better served by giving him their vote.
In a cost-of-living crisis, it’s tempting to look for someone to blame for life’s challenges. That is a gift to Labour’s opponents, keen to build a narrative of political and economic incompetence.
There is a counter-narrative, of course: inflation and government debt levels are both below the OECD average, New Zealand has had proportionally far fewer COVID deaths than elsewhere, and the country’s credit rating remains solid. But facts and logic may hold little sway.
This is a common problem for incumbent governments, campaigning on their record of managing real-world, complex problems. For opposition parties, it’s easier to present simple solutions and make bold promises, or what researchers of populism have bluntly called “bullshit statements”.
Breaking through these barriers and appealing to voter’s actual interests over their emotions is no easy task. Chris Hipkins has just over three weeks to find a way.
- ^ leaders debate (www.1news.co.nz)
- ^ bandwagon effect (journals.sagepub.com)
- ^ rise of New Zealand First (www.1news.co.nz)
- ^ unpredictable element (www.thepost.co.nz)
- ^ skills (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ personality (psycnet.apa.org)
- ^ character (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ decision-making (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ followership (www.amazon.com)
- ^ context (www.amazon.com)
- ^ NZ election 2023: combined poll trends now show a clear rightward shift since June (theconversation.com)
- ^ rise above (www.amazon.com)
- ^ one recent poll (www.thepost.co.nz)
- ^ boy from the Hutt (www.nzherald.co.nz)
- ^ self-deprecating (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ pragmatic, centrist instincts (www.stuff.co.nz)
- ^ unrealistic expectations (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ trust and support leaders (www.jstor.org)
- ^ After the election, Christopher Luxon’s real test could come from his right – not the left (theconversation.com)
- ^ priorities (www.labour.org.nz)
- ^ key achievements (www.labour.org.nz)
- ^ he has said (www.newsroom.co.nz)
- ^ authentic and know their weaknesses (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ possess the virtues (www.routledge.com)
- ^ change proposals (policy.nz)
- ^ one observer (www.1news.co.nz)
- ^ reassess any negative feelings (www.degruyter.com)
- ^ build a narrative (www.rnz.co.nz)
- ^ Taxing questions: is National glossing over the likely cost of administering its new ‘revenue measures'? (theconversation.com)
- ^ inflation (data.oecd.org)
- ^ government debt (data.oecd.org)
- ^ fewer COVID deaths (ourworldindata.org)
- ^ credit rating (www.stuff.co.nz)
- ^ management of meaning (journals.sagepub.com)
- ^ bluntly called (onlinelibrary.wiley.com)