Labour has had an influx of volunteers following Jacinda Ardern's rise to the leadership - but what are they doing and can they make a difference? As part of Newsroom's Election 2017 coverage, Sam Sachdeva spoke to Labour's field team about their efforts to "win the vote" ahead of election day.
If anyone in Labour’s Wellington headquarters grows complacent about the task facing them this election, the countdown clock quickly disabuses them of that notion.
The red digits tick down relentlessly, complementing the colour of the various decorations and placards festooned around the first floor of Fraser House.
Also keeping people on task as they nurse mugs of coffee and phone potential supporters are whiteboards with the party’s new slogan, ‘Let’s do this’, and a ranking of the top callers each day.
Among those keeping one eye on the clock is Anaru Ryall.
Ryall, Labour’s field campaign director, is in charge of managing the party’s Community Action Network and the volunteers whose dials and door knocks could make a difference for the party on election day.
The 29-year-old started delivering flyers for the party when he was 16, after a “lightbulb moment” during the 2005 election campaign.
“My mum’s Maori and my dad’s Pakeha, and I was brought up in te reo Maori education, so when [National leader] Don Brash came out and did his Orewa speech, the one law for all speech, that motivated me to get involved.”
He worked in Trevor Mallard’s Hutt South electorate office for a few years, before lending a hand on Justin Lester’s successful mayoral campaign last year.
“We had a solid team, about 250 volunteers in Wellington, focused only on knocking on doors and picking up the phone, and Justin himself contacted about 14 per cent of the voting population within Wellington.”
Then at the end of 2016, Labour advertised for some full-time positions working on the volunteer side of the campaign - an opportunity Ryall was quick to jump on.
“We do hoardings and flyers and the street corner meetings and the market stalls, but for us, nothing beats that one-to-one conversation you have with the voters, with the people in the community.”
He describes it as “going back to the old school”, replicating the work done by Labour candidates in the 1970s and 1980s.
Underpinning that old-school approach is shiny new technology, in the form of the Labour Connect data tool.
Rob Salmond, Labour's deputy chief of staff, says the system collects information from electoral rolls, the Census, and the party’s own work to build up lists of potential Labour voters and volunteers.
The tool was taken from the Australian Labor Party and updated to account for New Zealand’s MMP system and Maori seats.
Ryall says it has made life easier for the volunteers, allowing them to target people more effectively while allowing them to stop “printing out a whole lot of sheets” to log their calls.
National is more secretive about its data tools, but Salmond suspects they’re “pretty well as good as each other”: the last he’d heard, the party was using the Feedback system, taken from the Australian Liberals.
The other area of competition is what Salmond calls “the math nerd camp arms race stuff”, the quality of data going into the systems and the analysts using it.
On that front, Labour has made gains: whereas volunteers were slightly more accurate than data analysis in predicting the party’s backers in 2014, it’s now the other way around.
However, Salmond says the data work is about helping rather than replacing those out in the field.
“Face-to-face contact where I look you in the eye and I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be with us, you've just really got to be with us this time’ - that’s five, ten times more effective than receiving something in your Facebook.”
Ryall oversees a team of four field organisers - two in Auckland, and one in both Wellington and Christchurch.
Underneath them sit a team of trained volunteer leaders, who in turn manage the thousands of party volunteers as they make calls or knock on doors.
“We like to call it the snowflake model - you start in the middle with the nationwide campaign team, you branch out to the organisers, volunteer leaders and the volunteers.”
The field work has been run in four distinct stages, mapped out with Labour’s campaign team at the end of 2016.
First up was voter recruitment, with the team trying to sign on as many people as possible between January and May. Then in May and June came “team building”, where the volunteers that had been recruited were trained to become leaders and manage others.
The third phase, currently underway, is persuasion, otherwise known as “win the vote”.
The volunteer teams speak to likely undecided voters, either in person or on the phone, and try to sway them towards Labour.
Wellington field organiser Alice Soper says people’s stories, as much as policy, are a critical part of winning voters over.
“We talk to people about what they actually care about and listen to that, then find the areas of common ground and connect.
“That’s why it’s pretty easy to train people, because if you’ve had a conversation you know how to do this.”
It’s once that connection is formed that policy becomes relevant, Soper says.
“If I talk to someone about mental health and say we’re going to put x amount of dollars in there, that means nothing, but if I tell you that I have a brother that suffers from depression and anxiety and almost lost his life while waiting in our system and that’s what motivates me, then that’s real.”
Long days ahead
Workdays for the field team are “pretty hectic” now that the campaign proper has started, with Ryall working 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week.
His day starts at 6.45am with a teleconference between the leadership team to discuss the previous day, followed by an 8am call with staff from Labour’s head office and leader’s office for the day ahead.
Once Ryall’s in the office, it’s time to clear the backlog of emails which have built up, while checking out statistics from the previous day’s dials and door knocks to be sent out to the wider team.
In the afternoon, there’s a teleconference with the field organisers who report on how they’ve measured up against their goals and any successes and failures, while Ryall can pass on campaign updates such as an impending policy announcement.
On this particular day, the Christchurch and Auckland organisers are focused on weekend events in their patch; Ryall and Soper offer to help with confirmation calls so volunteers turn out on the day to help.
Soper is also preparing to “flood Aro” with volunteers ahead of the traditional Aro Valley candidates meeting on Monday, while setting up a phone bank ahead of the first TV leaders’ debate.
“Do the mahi, get the treats: if you want to come watch and have fun with us, pick up the phone beforehand.”
Later, Ryall catches up with Labour general secretary Andrew Kirton, before lending a hand with the phone banks in the evening.
The final phase is “get out the vote”, as the party tries to get as many of its supporters to the polls as possible.
Ryall is heading up to South Auckland, one of Labour’s priority areas given its high levels of party supporters but low levels of turnout.
“The last time we won an election, South Auckland turned out for us.”
With advance voting starting on September 11, Ryall says the party will treat every day like election day in the fortnight before September 23.
“That’s just the reality of it, early voting is going to be more and more popular as every election goes by.”
Large placards of new leader Jacinda Ardern’s face dominate the room, but there are still signs of the recent change, in the form of a photo collage heavily featuring her predecessor Andrew Little.
Ryall says the party has had over 5000 volunteer sign-ups online since Ardern took up the reins - almost doubling its existing stock.
While the influx of new people would seem difficult to manage, Soper says the timing couldn’t have been better, coming after existing volunteers had already been trained up.
“What was missing was the ground troops: we needed more foot soldiers and what that has done has reinvigorated our base and got them turning out so then it becomes really easy because I’ve already got leaders in place and can point to this person and this person and this person.”
However, Soper says Ardern and her team will need as much of a boost from those foot soldiers as possible if Labour is to be in pole position once the votes are counted.
“We can have all the momentum at the top, but if we don’t have the systems in place to look after people who want to join our movement, it’s for nothing.
“They might have that feeling about Jacinda, but if that's not reciprocated in their community, in their electorate, then they lose it because they feel it at the top but they need to feel it on the ground too.”