How John Key could win the election for David Cameron

The "smiling assassin" John Key meets then US Secretary of State Hillary ClintonThe "smiling assassin" John Key meets then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Source: US Embassy)

Last month, buried deep in The Times (page eight or so), was a statement of audacious significance concerning a comparatively insignificant leader. Journalist Tim Montgomerie, covering a meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, claimed that Key was the conservative leader who “is arguably Mr Cameron’s closest ally on the world stage”. Aside from the disquiet this may cause among British voters who might wish that Cameron would seek out closer and more powerful allies than the leader of a relatively unarmed country that is, quite literally, the antipode to his own, Montgomerie does underline the similarities between the two Conservative politicians.

As he noted, both made successful attempts to push their parties into the centre on social issues, most notably same-sex marriage, while abandoning some of the Christian dogma that stymies the electability of their North American counterparts. Both campaigned on a platform of deficit reduction and, in office, pursued a rigorous program of public spending cuts and before seeing belated, but significant, GDP growth and downturns in unemployment. They also came to power at a similar point in their country’s electoral cycle, being the first conservative governments to come to power following the neoliberal turns of the British and New Zealand Labour parties. They both have both faced the challenge of redefining Conservatism after the Left’s capitulation on the neoliberal consensus by lurching to the centre on some social policy, while trying to tarnish the credentials of their Labour opponents with the toxic brush of socialism.

That Key and Cameron toe a relatively similar political line is less intriguing than the similarities that are beginning to emerge in their electioneering. This is particularly evident as Cameron’s vision for the 2015 campaign comes into focus. Key has fought and won three elections; more impressively each was with an increased margin. Most recently, in September 2014, Key came within a hair’s breadth of winning an absolute majority, hitherto unthinkable under New Zealand’s MMP electoral system — a post-war German import that had been designed to return weak coalition governments through an aggressive form of proportional representation that almost exactly converts a party’s share of votes won to the percentage of seats held in Parliament. That Key achieved this degree of electoral success while pursuing a rigorous programme of public spending cuts only makes the feat more incredible. Conservative governments have administered harsh spending cuts before; Margaret Thatcher, for example, dealt the “harsh medicine” that “the patient require[d] to live”, but not even that master rhetorician could persuade her working-class patients to enjoy their treatment like Key has managed to. No Prime Minister in Britain or New Zealand has achieved Key’s electoral success in the modern era.

Cameron has already poached one of Key’s campaign advisors, Lynton Crosby, known in antipodean circles as the “Australian Karl Rove”. Key, for what it’s worth, also did some tacit campaigning for Cameron while in Britain, breaking with convention on interfering in another country’s election, to tell media that, were he Cameron, he would campaign on the fact that he “had added 1,000 jobs every week he had been in office”. Given Key’s success and the early signs that Cameron might be emulating it, a synopsis of Key’s most recent election as it relates to Cameron’s electoral style is long overdue. Small countries like New Zealand are often incubators for innovated campaign and policy strategies, which are later deployed in larger states. The once radical practice of a Reserve Bank targeting a particular rate of inflation, for example, was tried in New Zealand before being adopted by most developed economies, and the now-notorious “worm” poll, which offers instant voter feedback during a televised debate, was first adopted by Australia in 1993 and New Zealand in 1996 before making its way to Britain in the televised debates 2010, themselves a recent political innovation in Britain.

The Oil Spill

July 31st 2014 was the last day of sitting for the 50th New Zealand Parliament. With a little over 6 weeks until the election, Key’s incumbent National Party would have been right to gloat over their healthy lead in the polls: one showed National with a healthy 47.5% to Labour’s 29% (Roy Morgan Research); in another, 50% to 26% (Herald Digipoll). Key had maintained this support throughout the three years of the 50th Parliament (and built upon it over the three years of the 49th). As the most popular Prime Minister of the modern era, he could count on vanquishing a chronically unpopular opposition leader (whose preferred Prime Minister polling languished in the low teens). Six weeks is a long time in politics, but not quite that long.

Just 13 days later, a small but devoted gathering of assorted students, leftists and journalists gathered in an independent bookshop in the capital, Wellington, for the release of a book by Nicky Hager, a controversial investigative journalist, whose previous work on genetically engineered corn and the National party’s relationship with an obscure Christian sect had been immensely influential in New Zealand politics. In 2005, his book The Hollow Men provoked a scandal that cost the National Party the election, prompting a leadership spill that culminated in Key taking the reins of the party. The crowd might have been smaller than usual for one of Hager’s launches. It had been organised with very little fanfare. Hager was conspicuously silent about the content of his latest book for fear it might be subject to an injunction that would deprive it of electoral impact. “Something about Edward Snowden” was mooted by a clueless crowd member.

As it transpired, Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, was something different entirely.  Using a cache of hacked and leaked emails, Hager revealed that senior party figures had been leaking damning information to right-wing attack bloggers, who would, in turn, leak it to the traditional media. All eyes now shifted to Cameron Slater and his Whale Oil blog, which, over the course of the previous parliament, had revealed the Mayor of Auckland’s extra-marital affair, nearly causing his resignation; severely embarrassed Serious Fraud Office boss, Adam Feely, resulting in his resignation; and embarrassed the leader of the opposition over the details of Israeli secret service agents in New Zealand. As journalists pored over the book’s contents, what had been unthinkable mere days before seemed almost certain: the notoriously fickle New Zealand electorate would punish Key’s National Party and, starved of coalition partners on the right, he would be forced out of government. Pundits were calling the Dirty Politics affair the political scandal of a generation and, what made it all the more delicious, it occurred mere weeks before the general election. On August 15th, the front page of several newspapers bore a now-infamous image of a Prime Minister few New Zealanders had ever seen — John Key embattled and frightened, face half obscured in the shadows. The Machiavellian undertone of the scandal was underlined when one of the leaked emails showed the Justice Minister, Judith Collins, paraphrasing the patron saint of cynical politics, Caligula himself: “If you can’t be loved, it’s best to be feared”. As the days wore on, Hager’s anonymous source took to Twitter for daily releases of ever more-damning emails. The game was up. Hager, as he had done in 2005, had produced an earth-shattering political upset.

But as the next wave of polls was published, taken between the 19-23rd of August, the scandal took its most unlikely turn. In spite of a media storm, Key seemed to have only consolidated his support, with results of 45%, 50.7%, 50.8% and 48% across the four major polls (3 News Reid Research, Herald-DigiPoll, Fairfax Media Ipsos, One News Colmar Brunton). In fact, he was still on track to return as the most popular Prime Minister in modern history. Key resumed his campaign. The only serious casualty was the toxically unpopular and now outed-Machiavellian, Collins, who had apparently colluded with Slater to leak information leading to the ousting of the head of the Serious Fraud Office: Key forced her resignation, and with it, purged himself and his party of the scandal. In the days that followed, Key kept to most of his scheduled campaign visits — a revolving gallery of schools, malls and factories, all the while remaining persistently silent on Dirty Politics. On the September 20th, election day, Labour leader David Cunliffe conceded defeat mere hours after polls had closed as it became clear Key had won by a landslide. 

Key says it best when he says nothing at all

Key’s unprecedented success goes against conventional wisdom. His survival of Dirty Politics not only demonstrated his political acumen, but his broader political persona was imbedded in the scandal itself. Key was described by his former staffers at Merrill Lynch, where he worked as a forex trader, as “the smiling assassin”, referring to his ability to make mass redundancies while maintaining a friendly demeanour. He brought this quality to office, remaining relentlessly positive and upbeat throughout his campaigns. Indeed, only during the national tragedy of the deadly Christchurch earthquakes in 2010-2011 did Key depart from his positive message. Meanwhile, as Hager exposed, Key’s party enjoyed the benefits of scandalous, negative campaigning. Key reversed the Machiavellian doctrine: rather than preferring fear to love, Key wanted to be loved fearsomely.

But Hager’s exposé does not do justice to the nuance of Key’s strategy. Unlike other Conservative governments, Key adopted what he calls a “no surprises” approach to public spending, whereby he outlines the backbone of the party’s spending plan during the election campaign and delivers on it during the Parliament. It sounds relatively simple, but compared to the shockingly deep cuts performed by Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s Liberal Coalition in Australia and Chancellor George Osborne’s ever more creative trimming in the UK after their election victories, Key’s strategy stands out. A medicine taken voluntarily is far more gratefully received than one sprung on the patient unawares.

This is not to say that Key is a paragon of accountability — far from it. Aside from the admittedly big issue of public spending, Key is notoriously off-message and difficult to hold to account. This is where Hager’s allegations really do hit home, and where Cameron has the most to learn. During a political scandal following the Snowden leaks and the New Zealand police’s collusion with the FBI, Key claimed that New Zealanders cared more about the Government’s proposed changes to snapper fishing quotas than domestic spying. In the early days of the 2014 campaign, Key absurdly initiated a debate on the future of the New Zealand flag. Few disagree that it is an anachronistic colonial relic, but in a week in which Key was questioned over his government’s desperate record on epidemic levels of child poverty, domestic violence and the breaking of the first Judith Collins scandal, even members of Key’s own party thought the inevitable flag debate would be better postponed. As usual, however, Key’s political acumen served him well, and the news media indulged him with days of text polls and vox-pop journalism on the flag change. Key astutely recognises a truism of contemporary electioneering: while the news media, both traditional and digital, is more fractured than ever before, it shows an alarming tendency to coalesce attention around single issues. The sentimental controversy that the flag debate stirred up begged readers to engage in the story (via online opinion polls or comment sections, for example) in a way that more traditional issues, like child poverty, did not. In doing so, it starved the poverty and Collins scandals of attention.

One of Key’s greatest innovations was his masterful and unrepentant use of the selfie in the 2014 campaign. By his own estimation, he took over 20,000. He argued that the average selfie is shared over 100 times, which, by his calculation, would reach over half of the electorate. The selfie is the most powerful, anodyne campaign tool — it achieves maximum exposure without transmitting any policy information, or, frankly any information that distinguishes the candidate’s political position. It advances a politics of sentiment over substance. Remembering that the selfie only truly exploded after Apple released the iPhone 4 in June 2010 which included, for the first time, a front-facing camera – a month after the last General Election – it is likely the 2015 campaign will see the first widespread use of the selfie in a British general election. Politicians made their first faltering steps with the medium last year; David Cameron’s disastrous selfie with Becky Smith stands testament the old adage “know your angles”. Ditto Ed Milliband’s awkward appearance with Lily Allen and George Osbourne’s guileless decision in 2013 to pose with a £6.75 Byron burger that had been hand delivered by Treasury staff. These examples, however, are nothing compared to the thousands of innocuous, unnoticed selfies taken by politicians at routine public appearances throughout the country (or, indeed, to the level of notoriety the medium has allowed Karen Danczuk to gain for herself). For every disastrous mishap, there are hundreds of innocuous selfies shared around the internet.

Key’s use of the selfie, which merited a mention in Montgomorie’s piece for the Times, is most powerful symbol of his electioneering style. High on sentiment, low on substance, his campaigns connected powerfully with the emotions of voters while offering scant opportunity to offend them with contentious policy. In an age of wall-to-wall television punditry and vicious social media criticism, sometimes the best thing to do is to simply do nothing. We are beginning to see this with Cameron’s hesitant approach to the television debates. Cameron, desperate to kill UKIP, but knowing that he cannot deliver the hard line on immigration that would deal Farage the fatal blow, is instead trying to rob the insurgent party of its platform. This tact is vintage Key, although with an added degree of subtlety. In his first general election in 2008, Key refused to appear on television with the minor parties. Television networks quickly capitulated and shafted the minor parties to a separate debate. Starved of the oxygen of media exposure, they haemorrhaged votes to National. No television time would be fine for Cameron – he has more than enough as PM already – but it would positively ruin Farage.

A boutique campaign

Of course, the other, far more influential campaign that will shape the 2015 election is Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Already Obama’s campaign staffers David Axelrod and Jim Messina have been poached by Labour and the Conservatives respectively. Key’s sentimental approach to campaigning is tailored to New Zealand’s PR system, in which seats are allocated on the basis of what is effectively a single, nation-wide electorate. In the US, as in the UK, such nation-wide tactics cannot be successful unless they are backed up by strong campaigns in marginal seats, where elections are decided.

Cameron can rely on the electoral system to stem the swing of power to insurgent parties, but the high-profile success of UKIP and the Greens in marginal seats will pose problems for him in future elections, if not in 2015. The success of Obama’s campaign was dependent on a strategy antithetical to Key’s. Axelrod constructed a devilishly intricate database of voter preferences for each constituency, allowing campaigners to target policy and campaign strategies for individual voters. This also allowed Axelrod to allocate campaign finance more effectively. More than $150 million was spent on television advertising in each of Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado and Nevada saw more than $50 million each, but in states like California, campaign spending on television adds was almost nil, because, although the state carries the most votes in the Electoral College, it is almost untouchable for Republicans, who do not waste money trying to take it, prompting the Democrats to spend almost nothing to defend it.

2015 will see the most fractured campaign in modern British history. The successful Prime Minister will need to succeed on both the national and local platforms to win. Marginals can expect multiple visits from the Prime Minister a torrent of media-attention and election advertising in the vein of the Rochester by-election. Voters in safe seats will have their loyalty rewarded by a tidal wave of selfies between now and May 7th.