Saving the Labour Party

by Jane Clifton / 24 November, 2012
It seems hard to find someone who doesn’t want to get rid of David Shearer – but what are the choices?
UN worker cartoon by Chris Slane

Sometimes it seems we may as well pick our preferred statistical indices the way we do Melbourne Cup horses, because the outcome tends to be about as serendipitous. For ages, the Government has been trumpeting the Household Labour Force Survey as the pre-eminent word on which way unemployment is trending. It has happened that, despite joblessness having grown a little for the past few quarters, the HLFS has been showing a reassuringly modest problem, given the terrible global and domestic economic downers for business growth.

The Opposition has niggled away over whether this was a true reflection of the joblessness picture, to be told haughtily that the HLFS is “the standard internationally recognised measure of unemployment”. However, this month brought a nasty 7.3% spurt in the survey’s reckoning of unemployment growth. Overnight, the HLFS became, in the words of the Prime Minister, “one of those things that bounces around a bit”. This came after the failure of several days’ effort to persuade the public that the HLFS had suffered a “rogue poll”.

Pressed on this in Parliament, John Key said the survey was both the internationally recognised standard measure of unemployment and something that bounced around a bit. Oh, and by the way, he added – borrowing without attribution the words of the Opposition – it also didn’t give the complete picture of unemployment. In fairness, measuring both the growth of jobs and the lack of them is tricky and gives blatantly contradictory results. Sometimes, it can appear that incomes are going up in various parts of the country, suggesting that all is rosy, when all that’s happened is a lot of low-paid and part-time folk have been laid off, causing the average local income to rise.

Equally, Canterbury’s rebuild could see the expected boom in employment, but only at the expense of employment in other regions. It’s fashionable to exclaim at the desperation inherent in the hundreds of people who apply for lowly jobs in new supermarkets, without considering that a big chunk of them will be schoolchildren saving up for skateboards and gaming kit. And even while the survey “bounces” upward, the year to September brought a fall of 5300 people on unemployment benefits, to 50,400. To further confound the picture, our population has grown from 3.8 million to 4.4 million since 1999, yet although the rate of unemployment is the same now as it was then, there are 100,000 fewer people on the dole than there were at the turn of the century. That reflects how governments have grown stingier with benefits, and cleverer at not counting screeds of jobless via sickness and invalid benefits.

But just to ensure optimal confusion, we have both a higher unemployment rate, and a higher employment rate than Australia. Go figure that. Naturally, the Opposition prefers the set of figures that shows our rate of unemployment growth is one-and-a-half times the OECD average. Whichever way you cut it, there is a problem, and not just for the unskilled and socially maladapted. There is, for instance, a permanent force of unemployed teachers. People over 50 find it hard to get work once they are laid off, however lowly the new job they seek. And although there is undoubtedly a flourishing future in trades work in Canterbury for thousands of people, it won’t have a quick effect.


All of which is just one of the intractable slices of the universe, along with housing affordability, global warming, Maori and Pasifika educational underachievement and the pestilence of the common cold, that Labour leader David Shearer will be expected to announce ultimate solutions for this weekend. Or else. He will also have to orate these Holy Grails in the manner of Lincoln at Gettysburg, or at least of Rowan Atkinson in the Father of the Bride speech, or he will, according to a lot of media and blogosphere punditry over the last week, end up with his head on a spike. Right there on the conference floor, apparently, blood and all.

Politics can be a dreadful echo chamber when a leader’s traction is in question, but I’ve never seen one as acoustically challenged as this. The impetus for getting rid of Shearer is coming from the far left, most of whom would patently be more comfortable supporting the Greens, and who probably in fact do. That their campaign is now treated as serious news is as questionable as putting credence in an attempt by the Act Party’s fan base to spook the Nats into changing leaders to someone more to its taste. The far right are joining in the white-anting of Shearer, but that’s just for sport. Tellingly, National MPs are unsure whether they’d rather face the nice but chronically non-thrusting Shearer over the next hustings, or the commanding but non-self-censoring, arrogant David Conifer.

They’re not fussed either way. Hilariously, the blogging and Twittering left has now grown incandescent over Labor’s failure to meet its demand for a Conifer ascendancy. One blogger even called for a coup against the parliamentary press gallery, because of our role in propping up Shearer – and John Key and the other power elite. (He appeared to be joking but one should never assume. These perennially ignored bloggers might even now be in training camps in the Ureweras in readiness for the revolution.)

Actually, we stodgy old print and electronic journos have been avidly reporting the commentariat’s constant calls for Shearer’s head, while also ignoring the persistently inconvenient fact that the Labour caucus, which unlike us has been democratically elected to represent constituents and the party, is not yet in accord. How dare it not be? Don’t politicians read what we write?


One thing is beyond dispute: no one’s pretending anyone’s happy with Shearer’s failure to fire. He may, as Brian Edwards says from his Labour Party dower house, otherwise known as his blog, lack the very DNA to lead. But here are a couple of niggly factoids. Cunliffe lost the leadership race last time because too many colleagues dislike and mistrust him. His support base was the caucus B-team. Desperation may change those numbers but there’s no sign of it yet. If anything, a mood for change would favour deputy leader Grant Robertson – who is just as bright and articulate, with much better political and people skills.

It’s also worth projecting to a time when the Labour leader may have to unify the permanently adamantine Russel Norman, the steely and sly Metiria Turei and the mercurial Winston Peters in a coherent coalition Government. Is a man already unpopular with his own colleagues, and who famously once told a rival, “Get back in your box, Mr Ryall, I’m running the show now!”, the ideal candidate to mediate among such prickly customers? Or might one do better sticking with a mild-mannered, thoughtful chap who used to have some success mediating with genocidal warlords? Or might one at least get more reliable results from changing to a highly personable former diplomat with extensive Beehive experience, who has at least demonstrated he can charm, and if need be “handle” his colleagues without alienating them?

Of course, I’m just part of the echo chamber – when I’m not propping up the power elite. But I’ve never seen exogenous as opposed to endogenous coup-fomenting before – and certainly nothing like this, where en route to saving the Labour Party they care so much about, the agitators seem happy to destroy it.
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