Temporary Focus: Mr Shearer is a man who likes to get all his ducks in a row before he takes decisive action. He'd better hope that his ducks, when finally brought into line, turn out to be high-flyers. Because, should his long-awaited policy announcements prove to be ideological canards, the Labour Party has other leadership options.
DAVID SHEARER is the sort of man who likes to get all his ducks in a row before taking decisive action. Presumably, that’s what he’s doing now – lining them up. The trouble is, Labour’s ducks are cantankerous fowls. Persuading even one of them to stay put can be mightily time-consuming. And time is something Mr Shearer doesn’t have – at least not in great quantities.
Mr Shearer’s successful leadership bid was a naked assertion of the power Labour’s Caucus continues to wield over its own Party. Had the rank-and-file’s wishes been the deciding factor, there isn’t the slightest doubt that David Cunliffe would’ve been elected leader. But, Caucus reckoned it knew better and imposed its own choice on the party organisation.
Over-riding the will of one’s own party is always a very risky proposition, as many of Labour’s older MPs know only too well. Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard were all members of the fourth Labour government, which began life in 1984 with a party numbering 85,000 members and came to an end six years later with a membership of less than 10,000. Confronted with a caucus that consistently over-ruled the wishes of its party organisation, the overwhelming majority of Labour members simply voted with their feet.
If the Old Guard who threw their weight behind Mr Shearer last December think they can get away with that sort of exercise a second time, then they should think again. Labour’s current membership sits somewhere between five and ten thousand. Attrition on the scale of 1984-1990 is not an option.
The task Labour’s Old Guard has set Mr Shearer is to prove to the party’s rank-and-file that he has more to offer than their beloved Mr Cunliffe. He can do this by letting the public opinion polls demonstrate the wisdom of the caucus’s choice. Or, by assuming the role of radical reformer within the Labour Party. If Mr Shearer were to place himself at the head of a strong internal movement for constitutional, organisational and policy “modernisation”, the rank-and-file would have good reason to reconsider their allegiances.
My suspicion, however, is that Mr Shearer has already opted for the first option. His knowledge of and affection for the Labour Party is weak, and his experience as a UN administrator suggests a preference for working behind the scenes with a small group of trusted advisers to get all his “ducks in a row”, and then moving swiftly and decisively to tick-off a series of agreed objectives.
Among Mr Shearer’s principal advisers are his Chief-of-Staff, Stuart Nash, and policy-consultant, John Pagani. Neither of these men have a great deal of patience for the Labour Party which Helen Clark fashioned over the fifteen years she spent at the top. On the contrary, they believe that by 2008 Ms Clark’s Labour Party had driven a fatally large number of former Labour supporters into the arms of its electoral rivals – including the National Party.
Team Shearer’s principal target – among these defectors – are the people who, forty years ago, would have been found working in New Zealand’s import substitution industries and swelling the (compulsorily assembled) ranks of her powerful trade unions. Forty years on, in 2012, such people are to be found swelling the ranks of independent contractors, small business owners and the self-employed. The sort of people which Mr Shearer, in a speech delivered to Grey Power last Friday, pictured “at the kitchen table filling in GST returns”.
Any successful pitch to these voters is almost certain to be couched in terms that are both economically and socially conservative. At risk are Labour’s current policy commitments to remove GST from fruit and vegetables, increase income taxes, and extend increased financial assistance to the unemployed, solo parents – and (more importantly) their children.
It’s a major gamble on the part of Mr Shearer and his advisers. Their bet, essentially, is that the sort of New Zealander who still votes is much more likely to back a “responsible” and “moderate” Labour Party. If they’re right, then the polls will reflect the truth of their assumptions and Labour’s left-wing membership will be bludgeoned into silence by the irrefutable cudgels of success.
Perhaps this explains Mr Shearer’s reluctance to move too swiftly to establish his electoral credentials. If he can time his conquest of the polling heights to coincide with the anniversary of his election as Labour’s leader, and stay there for six months, then his rivals will have no option to abandon all thoughts of a leadership change until after the 2014 general election.
When it comes to deposing kings, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is right: “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”
And Mr Shearer had better also be right. Because if his conservative ducks refuse to fly, then Labour’s radicals will serve them up on a platter – alongside Mr Shearer’s head.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 February 2012.