Team Shearer

I have little useful to add to the voluminous discussion about who the Labour party will choose to succeed Phil Goff. I’m on the outside. This is Labour’s decision to make, and I don’t have a dog in the fight, except inasmuch as a good opposition and a strong Labour party is going to be crucial to Aotearoa. So I don’t know which way the caucus votes are headed, but like any other punter I have views, and I thought I’d sketch them out anyhow.

First of all it is positive that Goff and King have not stepped down immediately, forcing a bloodletting session 72 hours from the election. Two weeks is, I think, long enough to come to terms with the “new normal” and for a period of sober reflection (and not a little lobbying), but not long enough for reflection to turn to wallowing, or lobbying to degenerate into trench warfare. Leaving it to brew over summer, as some have suggested by arguing Goff should remain until next year, would be the worst of all possible options and I am most pleased they have not chosen this path.

As for the options: after some preliminary research the other day I declared for Team Shearer. I am still somewhat open to persuasion, and he lacked polish on Close Up this evening. But he seems to have unusual intellectual substance and personal gravitas. His relative newness to parliamentary politics is offset by extensive experience in other fields, particularly with the UN where tales of his exploits are fast becoming the stuff of urban legend. Most crucially, I understand he is the least institutionalised or factionalised of the potential leaders, the one with the greatest capacity to wrangle the “political wildebeest” that is the Labour Party, to use Patrick Gower’s excellent phrase. This last is, I believe, the most crucial ability. I said before the election that the next long-term Labour leader will be a Great Uniter, as Clark was (although possibly not in the same way Clark was; awe and fear aren’t the only ways to unite a party), and while there are not broad ideological schisms within the Labour party*, it is deeply dysfunctional in other ways and needs to be deeply reformed. This is a hard task, and it may be that no one leader can manage it, and it may take many years in any case, but it looks to me like Shearer’s external experience and outsider status make him the stronger candidate on this metric.

One other thing about Shearer: he seems to have strong support among non-Labourites, including Labour’s ideological opponents. In the Close Up spot he was reluctant to declare Labour a “left-wing party” which will make him unpopular (though I consider this just a statement of fact). I’ve seen some tinfoil-hattery around this — “if people like Farrar and Boag like him, it must be a trap” and so forth. This notion that “the right” has nothing better to do than wreck the Labour party, that every endorsement or kind word is an attempt to undermine, or the suspicion that the muckrakers must surely have some dirt on a favoured candidate borders on a pathology. Such reasoning leads to perverse outcomes, and adherents to this kind of fortress mentality make excuses for poor performance, and congratulate themselves for narrow wins and near losses, rather than challenge themselves to build a strong, disciplined unit capable of winning more robust contests in the future. An example of this in the recent election, where a small but crucial group of Labour supporters abandoned their party, campaigning and voting for New Zealand First in a last-ditch effort to produce an electoral result in their favour, without concern for the strategic effects this might have on the party’s brand and future fortunes. In spite of the lesson of 2008, they swapped sitting MPs Kelvin Davis, Carmel Sepuloni, Carol Beaumont, Rick Barker and Stuart Nash for Winston Peters and his merry band of lightweight cronies. Plenty of dirt there; it would have been a miserable term in government for Phil Goff if the numbers had broken slightly to the left, and (depending on the intransigence of Peters and the other minor parties) one from which the Labour Party may never have properly recovered.

Ironically, Labour has those defectors — about 3% of the electorate if the polls are to be believed — to thank for the opportunity now presented to it by the resounding defeat. If the result had held at around 30% (and NZ First been kept out by the threshold), temptation would have been to revert to the mindset post-2008 election that it had been close enough, that the left had been robbed by the electoral system and the evil media cabal, and that little change was really needed. With support at its worst since the Great Depression, no such delusions can persist, and there is, it would seem, a strong will for reform within the party.

I don’t think the other two likely Davids would make bad leaders either (concerns about Cunliffe that I expressed during the campaign notwithstanding). Cunliffe’s platform with Mahuta is strong, in particular because it will enable the party to reach out to Māori, which they desperately need to do to remain relevant. Parker reputedly has greater caucus support than Cunliffe, and he is also apparently standing with Robertson, who is also said to be standing for the leadership himself. All three Davids are talking about reform, and it will be harder for any of them to paper over the cracks or pretend that nothing is wrong, as Goff and King did. But whatever their will, it is not clear that Davids Cunliffe or Parker have the same conflict-resolution, negotiation and strategic development experience that Shearer does. And they are themselves a part of the problem, having been ministers (however excellent) under Clark, and supporting and sharing responsibility for the abysmal strategy and see-no-evil mentality evident within Labour since 2008.

But the party must do what is right for the party. It is important that the final decision remains with the caucus because as the past year has shown, no matter what the public and commentariat thinks no leader can be effective who is at odds with his team. Ideological congruence also matters; Shearer may be have the best skillset for the reform job, but he may legitimately be considered too centrist by the caucus.

I’ve always been clear that I want the NZ left to win, but I want them to have to work hard for it. I don’t want easy outs, excuses or complacency; I want Labour to be able to beat the toughest, because that’s what produces the smartest strategy and the strongest leaders, and the best contest of ideas. I am sure principled right-wingers hold similar views; they are just as sick as I am of a dysfunctional opposition obsessed with its own faction-wars and delusions of past glory, stuck in the intellectual ruts and lacking in strategic and institutional competence, even though it might make their electoral challenge easier. Good political parties don’t fear the contest of ideas; they embrace it. So my hope is that Labour does not concern itself overmuch with second-guessing the views of their ideological foes, or those on the periphery, but puts the candidates through a thorough triage process and then lets him get on with the job of putting their party back together. It’s not a trap, it’s a challenge.


* The lack of ideological diversity is a problem; a healthy political movement should always be in ferment. But it is not the most pressing problem facing the party at present.

21 thoughts on “Team Shearer

  1. Pingback: Team of rivals « The Dim-Post

  2. Be careful what you wish for, Lew.

    A Labour Party led by David Shearer would be a much more representative party – i.e. a party considerably less accommodating of your radical social and cultural opinions.

    You should bear in mind that the man reportedly running his numbers is the fellow who memorably described the Labour Party as a “gaggle of gays and self-serving unionists” – Damien O’Connor.

    Mind you, Damien is the only Labour MP to have won a seat off the National Party in this year’s election.

    That should give you pause for thought, Lew, when it comes to predicting the likely direction of the “new” Labour Party.

  3. if all we want is for the Labour party to be a competent alternative to National in terms of running the country, then yes Shearer does seem like the best option based on what you have said. But if we want a strong left wing alternative to National, that involves starting from scratch, and giving up on anyone who is scared of using the word “Left” when describing their politics. So thats Shearer out, and almost all of the Labour party out, and the Greens out too.
    Then those who are left have to hire a very small room, then sit down and figure out why we have failed. At least 1 in 3 adults in this country don’t take part in parliamentary politics either because they don’t see anyone there who represents their views or they don’t see parliamentary politics as having anything to do with their lives. I want a good strong opposition too, its just that I don’t see it coming from Labour, or even parliament in it’s present form

  4. One moment I’m a grey Tory apologist who has abandoned my activist heritage, next I’m a proponent of “radical social and cultural opinions”. Which is it, Chris? Bearing in mind, once again, that you don’t know me from Adam.

    I object to O’Connor’s boofhead framing, but his essential complaint is the same as mine: faction dominance and nest-feathering by entrenched interest blocs within the party, to the detriment of the party’s health and integrity.

    As I keep saying, but as you conveniently forget every time you want to have a crack, I care less about individual, specific policy outcomes than I care about the wider health of the system. This means the proper functioning of the party, which is crucial to a democratic system that requires a competent and effective opposition.


  5. “One other thing about Shearer: he seems to have strong support among non-Labourites, including Labour’s ideological opponents”

    I’m sceptical of this. Back in 2002 this was why people said Bill English was a great National leader, because he commanded more respect from people on the left than any of his rivals. This was true, but he didn’t command enough respect to actually influence anybody’s votes. Being popular with people who would rather open up a vein than vote for your party is not really helpful. A kind word from an opposition pundit may create a merry glow of bipartisanship and blue sky thinking but that opposition pundit won’t endorse you in an election, they’ll just congratulate you on being a good loser.

    And Chris, really? Is that your deal? Criticising people for ‘radicalism’? Can’t be having that radicalism, huh!

  6. Also Lew, you say Labour has to get back the Maori vote in order to remain relevant.

    I would question why they need this vote – it obviously isn’t needed to win elections, as National has shown us. But even presuming that Labour does have some particular need for the Maori vote, do you really think they need to go out there and win it? Given that the Maori Party seems to be in slow but inevitable decline and Mana is not getting the traction that was expected, I think Labour will become the home to most Maori electorate votes by default (bear in mind it already gets most Maori party votes)

  7. No, Lew, the confusion is all yours – as befits a man who says he wants the Left to do well, and then strides off every morning to work for Ian Kortlang, the Act Party’s long time adviser, champion of corporate causes , and supremely skilled manipulator of public opinion.

    I hope you include a long spoon in that briefcase of yours.

  8. Chris:

    What is with the sniping? I thought that we had agreed some time ago that the discussion/arguments between you and Lew would not include personal attacks?

  9. Chris,

    So that’s what you’ve been hinting at these past few weeks. A bit disappointing that you’d stoop to this sort of innuendo, but there it is.

    As I say: I tell anyone who cares to ask who I work for and what I do — and it’s all on the public record anyhow. But this site is my own private work, nothing to do with my employer. As a rule I don’t write about my clients or issues affecting them, and there’s no confusion: being able to separate professional duties from personal views is pretty central to what I do.

    If you want to comment on the post, fine. But I’ll not indulge any further discussion about my employment.


  10. Lobourites who campaigned for NZFirst are ideological traitors who deserved to be purged from the party. In their lust for power they have forgotten that politicals should be based on principle first and foremost. Without that what are they really…

  11. Hugh, I don’t think Shearer having support among right-wingers is necessarily an endorsement; I think there is a “fresh meat” element to their enthusiasm, and some will relish the opportunity to misstate some of his earlier actions or policy positions, as they did during the Mt Albert by-election when they declared that he supported privatising the military. But nor should it be cause to blackball him. After all, the guy is a Labour MP and long-term member, hand-picked by the present leader to succeed the outgoing PM in her safe electorate. He wasn’t brought in as a sinecure.

    Incidentally, regarding this “it’s a trap” tinfoil-hattery: the richest vein of this was the Red Alert thread which, while long and frequently idiotic, is worth reading. In addition to Mr Trotter’s charming contribution above, the new motherlode is, predictably enough, at The Standard.

    In the intervening few hours Parker has withdrawn and endorsed Shearer, and rumours are flying about who’s in the shadow cabinet he will be putting together. I don’t know how credible these are, but I think it’s pretty clear that the Shearer campaign just went mainstream. Good. So much the better for the nation if Cunliffe sticks to his guns and we have a good, honest, but not acrimonious contest for the leadership.

    Regarding Labour’s need to reconnect to Māori — the problem isn’t so much that Māori are voting for parties other than Labour. They are to an extent, but Labour still won one back, cut a couple of the Māori party’s majorities, and gained close to half the party vote in the Māori electorates, about 30 percentage points higher than the māori party (in second place). The problem is that Māori voters are strongly represented among those who aren’t voting for anyone. Turnout in the Māori electorates is down roughly 20% on 2008, for a start, and that’s without getting into the close analysis of why turnout across the board was lower this time around.


  12. All the tin-hat anti Shearer conspiracy nonsense is pretty annoying. But, I admit the songs of praise from the Right is a bit confusing.

    Chris Trotter, I’m interested by what you are saying – rather than attack Lew, tell us more about Shearer’s politics if you know something about him.

    I don’t want some managerial, National-lite leader.

  13. With Lew’s recent penchant for criticising left-wing commentators who blame media/each other/ Joe public et al for political failure, it is easy to ignore the experience that the Labour left has gone through over the last decades.
    The tide has gone out on socialist thinking for most of NZ’ers, we are pragmatists who want to preserve our bit of pie, and we calibrate our idealism in mostly material terms.
    This hasn’t happened recently, but has been a gradual generational process. It appears to me that the large tranche of society that we think ought to support ‘Labour’ no longer exists. Those who once were supporters are either gone, like most of my parents’ generation, or are now upwardly mobile, ‘aspirational’ voters who follow the winds of change to their own best advantage. That’s why we have had such centrist governments since the time of Muldoon.
    If there’s any legacy Goff has left behind, it is the re-kindling of core beliefs: that social justice should be a central tenet of any Left party; that any society deserves to hold power over the assets belonging to the people; that it has the right to control and ameliorate the activity of the rentier /ownership classes; and that the commonweal must prevail over any sectional interests or political expediency . There is no doubt that the process of re-educating the NZ electorate has begun, and I for one salute Goff and the strategists who made it possible.
    I do not see these values as being the sole preserve of Labour. Nor do I see that any particular number of electoral seats represents success or failure in the context of any single political party. The ‘left’ was not trounced in the recent election and nor was Labour.

  14. Lew said: The problem is that Māori voters are strongly represented among those who aren’t voting for anyone. Turnout in the Māori electorates is down roughly 20% on 2008, for a start, and that’s without getting into the close analysis of why turnout across the board was lower this time around.

    This was reflected in my experiences door-knocking in Taranaki. I met a huge number of the disengaged and marginally employed, Maori and pakeha alike, who were quite unmotivated to vote for Tweedledumb or Tweedleglee. On a Saturday afternoon some of them were far more interested in their smokes or their RTD’s to be truthful.And I met a number of bitter frequently under-employed males who blamed ‘them’ (pollies) for whatever was wrong in their world,such as poverty-inducing custodial issues or leasehold problems; I often went away feeling despair that we have created such a marginalised class of people. After twenty odd years of no real improvement, I don’t think I would be bothered voting either.

  15. @K: so basically the problem is cynicism and embitterment, rather than apathy, and it’s the same in every New World colony. In theory, the disengaged people you met would be fertile ground for Te Mana.

  16. Jeez Chris, do you feel the same self loathing you think Lew should feel every time you cash a cheque from Fairfax, APN or whatever other media organisation you;ve been selling your opinions to?

  17. No, not really, Insider. But then the degree to which I’m prepared to compromise my principles is immediately apparent by the quality of my publishers, and readers judge me accordingly.

    Transparency is all – which, I readily concede, may be difficult for someone calling him/herself “Insider” to grasp.

  18. “But then the degree to which I’m prepared to compromise my principles is immediately apparent by the quality of my publishers, and readers judge me accordingly.”

    Never a truer word spoken, Chris! In fact, this reader is judging you right now…

  19. Pingback: Folks, this is gonna get ugly #votenz | The New Tasman

  20. The Labor Party has been K.O.d bigtime. This happens to all parties from time to time. Young blood deserts, volunteers disappear and money takes a dive. There are a couple of comments I want to make.
    I think the labor campaign was run as an electorate contest rather than party vote contest and this is partly to blame for the outcome.
    There was an underlying mistake that the greens would support labor, instead they are busy sucking up to the nats. For gods sake why didnt labor have some signature green policies for the gentile urbanites and society matrons. The strident red hoardings were a turn off. You gifted list votes away from labor and I want to know why you did this.
    The publicity was puck-making. The blood red signage was vile and left no room for thought, feeling or inspiration (just like its owners). Why don’t you people look at the work done for Norman Kirk back in ’72 if you want to know how its done.
    Another note from when Norm got the leadership of the lp: he actively lobbied wives, husbands and families as well as m p colleagues.
    And another Big Norm note. He said that the most decisive form of communication was to have household meetings.
    Still further on publicity, the harking back to mickey savage days was a turnoff despite the good works. People want the here and now, they want the future. They don’t want to be ground down by an emerging class system. Neither do the rich. I think this may be a fertle field for labor. Labor needs to get manufacturers and farmers back to add to its reference groups.
    Finally, to balance out the “gaggle”, get some sex bombs on your list. Silvio Berusconi might be able to help here.
    DC seems to be the one who wants to make a clear up.

  21. Thank you for your earnest, if somewhat odd, suggestions, Maxwell. Perhaps you’d like to pass them on to the Labour party?


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