Authenticity: David Shearer feels real. And it's that quality, more than any other, that Labour needs if it is to recover from its worst defeat in 80 years and win the 2014 election.
THE BLUE SEDAN had been following their car for some time. The driver kept glancing in the rear-view mirror, saying nothing, but watching, with growing apprehension, as the distance between the two vehicles narrowed. He was pretty sure he’d seen the occupants’ faces before. They’d been part of the angry crowd of Israeli settlers who’d gathered to hurl stones and abuse at the West-Bank border checkpoint.
The Palestinian villagers who were the focus of the settlers’ rage just shrugged. This was their life now. What could they say? For a couple of hours the little delegation had stayed and listened, and then driven away with the details of yet another incursion; yet another seizure of Arab land. But, as their driver now plainly saw, they had not left alone.
The narrow streets of Old Jerusalem prevented any sort of fast getaway, and corner by corner, intersection by intersection, the blue sedan edged closer. The driver was certain now: these were the men he’d seen at the check-point, the ones who had eye-balled him directly and drawn their fingers across their throats in the universal gesture of murderous intent. Still the driver said nothing to his companions, but around the steering-wheel his knuckles visibly whitened.
And then, thanks-be-to-God, another checkpoint loomed ahead. Israeli soldiers moved towards the two now motionless vehicles seeking identification. The driver presented his United Nations ID and his three Kiwi companions offered up their New Zealand passports. While a weary-looking officer checked them out, the driver clearly overheard one of the occupants of the blue sedan tell the young conscript holding his papers: “Hurry-up and let us through little brother, we’ve come to kill that sonofabitch from the UN!”
As the soldiers patiently instructed the settler assassins to turn their car around, David Shearer and his friends drove on to safety.
"Let us through little brother, we've come to kill that sonofabitch from the UN!"
IT’S STORIES LIKE THAT that made David Shearer Labour’s leader, and may, in three years’ time, make him New Zealand’s next prime minister. Not because he is New Zealand’s most eloquent politician. Not because his grasp of detail is second-to-none. Not because he has a face and a manner perfectly suited to the small screen. If those were the qualities the Labour Caucus had been seeking they would have chosen David Cunliffe – who has them in abundance.
Labour’s Caucus, which the New Zealand electorate, just three weeks ago, saw fit to pare down from forty-three to thirty-four Members of Parliament, knows better than anyone that their party’s been judged and found wanting. Its deficiency was not one of intellect, or feeling, or capability. What Labour was deemed to lack was authenticity. More bluntly: it didn’t seem real. And unless and until it becomes real, Labour will remain in opposition.
And that is David Shearer’s great advantage. In spite of (or is it because of) his “lived-in” face and his hesitant speech Labour’s new leader feels genuine; feels true.
At the media conference that followed his election, David Shearer talked about bringing a “fresh face” to a “fresh start”, and of wanting to build a “clean, green and clever” economy “open to all New Zealanders”. Most importantly, Labour’s new leader wants to “reconnect” his party with the people whose support it has lost.
These are not the factory workers of yesteryear, they’re the independent contractors and self-employed workers of today. Workers who, for better or for worse, have only themselves and their families to rely on. Workers who, though unprotected by unions, and unsupported by the State, are nevertheless proud of what they have made out of the skills they have acquired and the opportunities they have seized.
Like the farmers of Palestine and the herdsmen of Somalia, all these New Zealanders want is a chance to get on with their lives in peace and without undue interference. An olive grove, a herd of cattle, or a little franchise business mowing lawns, altering clothes or splicing cables: the difference in the end is pretty negligible. These are “little guys” in a large and too-often-uncaring world. And all they’re looking for is someone and something to stand in their corner; a person and a party to watch their back.
And that, for his whole adult life, is precisely what David Shearer has been doing.
And the men in the blue sedan haven’t been able to stop him yet.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 December 2011.