On Shearer’s exit, and where Labour goes from here

Some political animals would have grasped for survival at the results of the latest Roy Morgan poll, which showed National losing ground and with the Labour/Greens combined vote exceeding the centre right – such that if an election was held on its basis, David Shearer would be Prime Minister.

But it was too little, too late for Shearer, especially in the light of the hammering he received from John Key in the House on Tuesday, during the final battles over the GCSB Bill. In the end, choosing the time and manner of his departure proved to be one of the more decisive things that Shearer did in his 20 months on the job.

What now? Over the next few weeks, Labour will be choosing its new leader under new selection rules which divide the relevant votes on a 40/40/20 basis between the caucus, the party and affiliated unions. Ironically these rules were set in place at the same annual party conference at which Shearer had vanquished David Cunliffe, stamped his authority on the party and enjoyed a surge of support among the wider public in the process. It is Shearer’s dismal legacy that the probable high point of his tenure as Leader of the Opposition came from confronting one of his own colleagues, rather than confronting the government.

The new selection rules were a byproduct of that same history of division. Shearer’s became leader in the wake of an extensive consultation with unions and party gatherings at which anecdotally, Cunliffe emerged as the clear preference – only for that to be over-ridden by a caucus dominated by an Anyone But Cunliffe (ABC) mindset that first fixed on David Parker, then shifted in desperation to Shearer. Similarly the looming contest is being touted as a Cunliffe vs Grant Robertson affair, with Andrew Little as a likely alternative if and when it becomes apparent that Robertson cannot make the grade. The stubbornness of the Labour caucus divisions cannot be over-estimated but for obvious reasons, an Anyone But Cunliffe approach is now far less likely to carry the day. Little’s union track record if combined with the Anyone But Cunliffe remnants could even conceivably make him a stronger contender from the outset than Robertson.

The union leadership is nothing if not realistic, however. And as Helen Kelly said on RNZ this morning, the bottom line has to be who can win the next election. For all of Cunliffe’s flaws – and the fabled egotism, pomposity and shoot from the hip tendencies have all been brought under greater control in recent years – it would seem obvious to everyone but the diehards in the Labour caucus that Cunliffe is a better media performer than Little. Whatever Little’s strengths may be in bargaining or as a strategic thinker – lets give him the benefit of the doubt on both those fronts – he is a dour speaker who would merely double down on many of the same presentational flaws that sank Shearer. Cunliffe would be a risk. But for Labour, there are no risk free options – and if its caucus is so blind as to prefer losing the next election in order to spite David Cunliffe, then it will deserve all it gets.

So much for the media packaging issues. Yet this isn’t simply a matter of finding a new wrapper for Labour’s same damaged goods. What Shearer’s tenure has shown is that Labour can’t simply wait for the electoral cycle to deliver it a victory – it has to look like a centre left party capable of being a strong and credible alternative to business as usual. The fact that the widespread opposition to asset sales and to the GCSB Bill has not translated into a marked shift in political allegiances – the Roy Morgan poll may herald the start of that shift, but its too early to judge whether it will be sustained – is both an indictment of Labour’s recent performance, and an opportunity. This is a government with unpopular policies, and much of its support is merely by default.

One way the new leader has to signal a break with Labour’s dithering recent past will be reflected in how it engages with the Greens in general and Russel Norman in particular. During the Shearer/Robertson era the Greens were treated at best, as a necessary evil – to be tolerated, but not trusted, and kept at arms’s length lest they frighten more affluent voters. As a result, the Greens made almost all the running against the government with the media and in Parliament, while giving Labour what little policy innovations it has had to offer in recent years – eg, the capital gains tax, Labour’s on again off again inclusion of beneficiaries in Working for Families, the block on foreigners buying houses etc etc.

Meaning : the next Labour leader has to work with unison with its more dynamic partner, not stand around awkwardly trying to look like yeah, we’re kind of dating, but we’re not really in a relationship. In reality, Russel Norman is the de facto deputy leader of the next Labour government, and Labour had better elect a leader able to treat that reality as a virtue. Just as National does its best to make Act’s policies sound mainstream, so Labour needs to be willing and able to launder the edgier policies of the Greens and supplement them with its own unapologetic centre left policies. Its not that hard. But it will mean accepting that the effort that Labour has put into trying to recruit affluent, white collar professionals who are liberal on social issues has been a misplaced priority, and one that has to go. Cunliffe has already signalled an emphasis that is more consistent with Labour tradition in this speech here and in this one here.

Finally, there’s nothing remarkable about Labour’s current divisions, or challenges. Go back only ten or twelve years – to when National looked in the mirror, saw Bill English looking back at it and felt suicidal – and there was a lot of debate in the media at the time as to whether the National Party had any future at all. In that sense, the people saying Shearer was the worst Labour leader since Bill Rowling have it wrong. He was only the worst Labour leader since Phil Goff, and only the worst leader of the Opposition since Bill English, who was one of a similar revolving door of leaders (Bolger/Shipley/English/Brash) before it finally found salvation again in John Key.

It has been apparent for quite a long time that Labour couldn’t go into the next election with David Shearer at the helm. Almost as long in fact, as the better option has been apparent.


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