Relitigating Labour shibboleths?

by Jane Clifton / 19 May, 2012
It’s a thankless job being Opposition leader, but David Shearer might just survive it.


If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming you, and you’re an Opposition leader, then… you probably don’t read the papers much. Barely six months in the job, David Shearer is keeping his head,
despite a set of portents that suggest the only rational reaction would be to clutch one’s head and scream for mother. The polls have only once lifted for Labour, the media have almost universally branded the new leader lacklustre, and Shearer’s chief rival, David Cunliffe, is still blatantly campaigning for his job. Worse, Labour’s fraternal socialist party in France has just been restored to the Élysée Palace, vowing to spend the country out of the global financial crisis. This is not the sort of rallying cry needed by a Labour leader setting the scene for a major fiscal shake-up of his party’s old policies.

Just to put the tin lid on it, the only two prominent commentators to have come out in favour of Labour’s retaining Shearer are, shall we say, to the right – if not of Genghis Khan, then certainly of your average Labour voter. That was one of the kisses of death for Bill English’s leadership of National; the left kept talking him up because he was their idea of a good moderate liberal National leader. With enemies like that… It’s often said that being Opposition leader is the worst job in politics, and never was this truer than for Shearer. The awful reality Labour has to face is that it can’t have its old Government back. The global financial crisis has changed absolutely everything, and it’s not just an evil Tory myth that Labour’s old policies are no longer affordable.

Neither, frankly, are the evil old Tory policies, as evidenced by the desultory trickle of niggardly new Budget measures. Shearer gets this, but the rest of the party is some way behind. His job is to gently but firmly corral Labour toward the new fiscal realities, as evidenced by his announcement last week that Labour would, like National, continue to suspend contributions to the New Zealand Superannuation Fund till times improve. National’s continuing poll strength shows voters are generally accepting of austerity measures. Even Labour’s bedrock tax-hike wishes are now electorally iffy, when voters feel so financially put-upon. In terms of these realities being dead rats to swallow, you’d really have to work your way right up the order Rodentia to the South American capybara or the crested porcupine to grasp the magnitude of the unpalatability for a Labour loyalist.

As a sales job, this draws very near Shearer’s old gig of reasoning with Rwandan warlords. (And in the Labour Party, there is no equivalent to the UN’s blue “don’t shoot!” livery.) What the bulk of the commentariat doesn’t seem to get is that Shearer can’t just barge out and knock our socks off with bold new policy. He has to take the party with him. It may be that the party doesn’t want to come. But in the normal run of Opposition leadership, six months is hardly a fair go. Helen Clark spent much longer than that in the toxic low-polling zone, and she held her nerve, despite a deputation of senior colleagues urging her to step down. The disappointment in Shearer stems from the early promise he appeared to hold out of setting forth new ways of taking our special talents to the world.

He spent his first term in Parliament on the backbench studying innovation and foreign exchange-earning success stories, and researching how other countries’ governments achieved great leaps forward in that zone. Alas, his first serious attempt to inspire us with that thinking led to the infamous Finnish fiasco – inadvertently hijacked by Gerry Brownlee’s getting into a slanging match with a shock-jock from Finland. Shearer hasn’t had another go on that front – and one suspects that’s because there be even more dragons. Many of the bold, economy-pumping examples Shearer has studied almost certainly involve Labour no-go zones like public-private partnerships, partial asset sales and the like. The wall he keeps running up against is that in order for local companies and industries, and state assets – which are replete with saleable know-how – to go global, they need capital. The old Labour would say, let’s write a cheque.

The new Labour will have trouble saying that with any credibility. If it proposes, as Cunliffe seems to be hinting, to raise taxes to fund such things, the outflow to Australia will simply accelerate, exacerbating all our problems. Shearer appears to be trying, behind the scenes, to relitigate some of those Labour shibboleths – dangerous territory for any leader, let alone one with little public support. It’s also incredibly damaging that any voter who takes even a passing interest in Labour’s goings-on can see there are three viable contenders for his job: Cunliffe; deputy Grant Robertson; and union heavyweight Andrew Little.

Despite campaigning by the right-wing blogosphere, Cunliffe loyalists and Green supporters, there is no coup afoot. A flurry of news reports portending an imminent challenge to Shearer was down to a handful of Labour romanticists pining for the old days. But neither has Shearer unified his caucus behind him. Even his loyalists find themselves straggling. That his faithful attack-dog, Trevor Mallard, contradicted the new super policy just days before its announcement shows the caucus machinery is failing. Shearer’s back-office support has been patchy – although again, reports of backroom rows and mutinies have been massively overdramatised. The choice of inexperienced and cerebral former MP Stuart Nash as chief of staff was never ideal, for a job that demands head-banging and knee-capping behind the scenes. Shearer needs someone – be it his new office manager or some other functionary – to do Heather Simpson’s old “H2” job of keeping order and administering tough love to various caucus members on the leader’s behalf.

Leaders should seldom do this sort of work directly. The air of omnipresence and menace so essential to leadership security depends on a flank of heavies. You wanted to argue with Helen? You had to get past a phalanx of knucklecrackers, and woe betide you if H2 herself was forced to pay you a visit. Yet I’ll bet no one remotely scary has been to ask Cunliffe what the hell he thought he was doing making his own State of the Nation address. Suffice it to say, he’d have found parts of his anatomy detachable had he tried this under Clark. Still, Shearer has a mulish stickability. He has paid a short-term price for refusing to be media-trained or amp up his rather beige public persona. But if he can survive, voters may reward him for staying true to himself. The contrast between Shearer’s measured earnestness and Key’s glib smart-arse routine in Parliament is potential election-campaign gold.

His instinct seems to be that Labour cannot afford to bark at every car in the way his predecessor Phil Goff did, but must be selective to keep credibility. The next Labour-led Government – highly likely in 2014 – will have to hold the line against a heavy Green presence. It needs to draw fiscally deliverable lines in the sand now. For now, Shearer’s most urgent requirement is menace. You needn’t be a loud, aggressive mongrel-type to acquire it. Bill Birch used to cause bladder failure in colleagues simply by removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. Perhaps a quiet word in Cunliffe’s ear about still having a few useful contacts among the Janjaweed or the Hutu?

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