Rob Hosking: Labour’s weird data obsession and that awkward poll

The problem is spreadsheets. Noses are buried so deeply into Microsoft Excel or whichever spreadsheet programme the Labour research team uses, they are losing sight of all political reality.

The party’s Parliamentary team, and certainly its back-office –  or at least those who are left in its back office – are obsessed with data.

Spreadsheets, graphs, data points, shifting trendlines and margin of error are all matters of weird fixation. They are treated like a combination of the Holy Grail and the Holy Bible: the subject of the ultimate quest and also matters of holy writ.

Now, it is not unusual – in fact, it is common – for political geeks to get incredibly excited about this stuff. Shifting data about polling trends as well as the economy and human geography generally is pretty much at the core of any political management tool.

No, that’s not the issue.

But it is backroom stuff. It excites those who are already excited by politics. It does little for anyone else.

Geeks who are obsessed with their data are needed in politics. And they’re not, as a group, bad people. Some of my best friends fall into that category.

Some of them are pink, run a blog and are mostly consumed by the arts, lifestyle and fitness.  But boy do they know their numbers.

Successful political leadership, in the end, is about judgement. It can – and often is – based on the kind of data provided by back room nerds.

But it is based on many other things as well: empathy, connection with other human beings, and often just sheer instinct and gut feel. All that appears to have been crowded out by Labour’s geeks.

In a different sort away, the infamous Chinese sounding names database Mr Twyford put together last year was a similar example of the same syndrome: the conviction that if data looks awesome on a spreadsheet in an office in Wellington it will be a powerful argument that will confound the party’s enemies and gobsmack the humble Kiwi voter with its brilliance and vision.

And then, of course, when data turns up which tells the party things it does not like, the response is a mix of denial and smear.

The attack on Statistics New Zealand a month ago has been mentioned: this week, there was the – admittedly much less serious, but equally psychologically telling – refusal to accept the result of the Colmar Brunton poll.

Now, a sensible reaction would have been to shrug, admit Labour is not doing as well as it would like, but perhaps add the classic, rather boring but politically prudent line about not commenting on individual polls.

Instead, Mr Little damned the poll as “bogus.” To compound the matter he then released Labour’s own polling, which had several effects, none of which are helpful to the party.

One is it kept the story going for another 24 hours.

Two, while the junkies might know that UMR is a reputable pollster, undecided voters are only going to hear “Labour’s pollster” and decide the whole thing is a bit of a jack up.

And even the political junkies are asking pointed questions about the weightings used in that UMR poll, what methodology, and precisely what questions were asked. Despite promising to release its methodology, Labour has not done so.

Only the commenters at The Standard and the Labour party itself consider the UMR poll to be a good poll.

But explaining is losing, and the worst mistake Little made is blow it up as an issue.  The response has been near universal disbelief.  And now, everyone wants to keep seeing the next UMR poll.  And the next.  And the next.  If Labour don’t, they’ll be “hiding something”.  If they do it sporadically, they’ll only release the “good ones”.

What a prize idiot.

Whaleoil has reset the Ballsup counter.  He may have set a new record of 21 days (previous was 13), but this does have all the hallmarks of another howler.


  • Keeping Stock

    Will the Ballsup counter be paused whilst Mr Little is in Canada, attending a love-fest with Justin Trudeau? I would submit that he ought not be credited with Ballsup-free days when he is far away from the New Zealand media and public, and thus far less likely to balls up.

    • Wheninrome

      I would have thought that his adoring MSM would have jumped at the chance of a freebie trip following their man, reporting his every word, photo ops etc., surely the news on TV will be full of it every night.

      • adam

        The Media Party and Andy, on a Hercules, with a bucket, island hopping to Canada, sounds like something they could moan about for weeks

        • Aucky

          Corin only does Business Class.

    • Korau

      I’m sure Little can insult his hosts, alienate their neighbours (Americans) and do damage to NZ’s reputation without breaking a sweat. Probably all before breakfast.

      • adam

        or before he makes it through Customs. Don’t you have be of good character and have the means to support yourself for the duration of your stay, along with proof of funds. If he can somehow pass the first two the third one should be interesting with the piggy bank depleted

    • Tiger

      At least Trudeau smiles – even as he stuffs up Canada. Andy cannot seem to smile.

  • XCIA

    If he wants to make an name for himself, he could zip along to Montreal and find out how they were able to put everything back were it was after rejecting their governments “supercity” following a period of misery that lasted two years.

    • sheppy

      If only…. but that would require vision, guts and skill, something most NZ politicians, especially those in the opposition lack.
      I’d expect we’re stuck with our eye wateringly expensive “supercity” together with its gridlock now the great funding announcement for Lennys legacy vanity project rail loop to nowhere new has been announced

      • MaryLou

        Caught a clip today, apparently we’ll be hearing on tonights news about a Billion dollar Blowout on the trainset. Already.

        • sheppy

          What a surprise!
          At least the government have put an upper limit on their contributions, not that it will help those in Auckland paying for something they won’t gain any benefit from.

        • XCIA

          Those billions just keep on coming – remember the billion plus just for IT.

  • peterwn

    A geek spending all day in mom’s basement will have a pretty inward looking mind. A geek who does NZ Great Walks, goes on a safari, treks to Everest base camp and visits Scott Base would have a refreshed mind and clarity of outlook which would greatly improve his performance as a pollster. This would be so valuable to his business he would have a good case to tax deduct the costs of the trips, except that IRD would not see it that way.

  • sheppy

    You have to wonder just how many rogue polls there have to be before the leftists realise it’s the new normal

    • symgardiner

      Or how many ‘rogue elections’ there have to be. There have been three so far… Aunty Helen’s turfing, Uncle Phil’s failure to show me the money and Silent T’s apology of a campaign.

  • haysel

    So why doesn’t Angry Andy just go down to Colmar Brunton and give them ‘The Bash’ ? after all it works with the banks doesn’t it .

  • niggly

    Andrew Little thoroughly deserves a reset to “0” after his “bogus Colmar Brunton poll” outburst. Well done, that man!