The rise of the non-stop campaign

The concept of permanency in political campaigning seems at its core, contradictory. While there are routine features of our political landscape, like regular elections, the political campaign has traditionally been seen as a fleeting, rather than a fixed feature of politics - a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

In 2017, this is not the case. Political campaigning has morphed from a series of tactics aimed at getting a political party elected, to a non-stop campaign that aims to bolster that party’s support and discredit its opponents throughout the duration of the political term.

With just a couple of weeks to go before the General Election, it’s timely to take a look at the rise of the permanent campaign and how it affects our union’s work.

As union campaigners what we’re increasingly seeing is the use of political office not only to govern, but to build and maintain popular support. This kind of ‘permanent campaigning’ has become entrenched not only in electioneering strategy, but in the day-to-day work of parliamentary politics.

The rise of the focus group as a political tool is a good example. Focus groups bring together a small number of people to act as a proxy for public opinion. These groups, run by pollsters and agencies on behalf of political parties, are used to gauge the public’s response to events, issues or soon-to-be announced policies.

While relatively new on the New Zealand political scene, the focus group and permanent campaigning have an established history. The term ‘permanent campaigning’ can be traced back to Pat Cadell, an advisor in the office of United States President Jimmy Carter, who is said to have advised the President to “court the American voter throughout the presidency.”[1]

The need for this non-stop style of campaigning can be linked to the rise of what is called the ‘postmodern electorate’ where voters, fragmented in their views and associations, frequently shift allegiance, meaning they can no longer be relied on for consistent support.

In the New Zealand context, every government since the introduction of MMP has been formed by large parties reliant on formal and informal coalitions with smaller parties. In an environment like this, where passing laws requires constant negotiation, governance does not stop at the acquisition of power, but depends on the maintenance of it.

As a union, we object to the idea that conducting a focus group is the same as consulting citizens. What we’ve seen, and opposed, is a logic that treats political power, rather than representation of the electorate, as the driving force behind policy-making. By this logic, policy is guided not by a principled agenda centred on involving people in politics, but by proxies for public opinion where the strategy for governance is to simply monitor the propensity for a voter to change their mind on a given issue (vote shift).

As union campaigners and activists the concept of the permanent campaign is important because it affects the way we organise.

We, like politicians, need to shift our campaign strategies to a more long-term view if we’re to build and maintain momentum in an environment where people’s attention and preferences are pulled in multiple directions.

We too need to build our membership to maintain our influence and ability to affect change.

But our robust, democratic structure will never be interchanged for focus groups. Our members will always have access to our decision-making process and the ability to participate fully in the work and policy of our union.

That’s why you’ll see the PSA’s core campaigns - Stand Together and the fight for equal pay - continue long after Election Day. We know every milestone we reach is just one step in a long journey to create better working lives for our members.

Our campaigns will never be about mathematical bottom lines. But about advocating for the interests of our members, with our members.

[1] Lilleker, 2006.