Shearer’s lead­er­ship looks shaky

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

In pol­i­tics, bad times for the other side can breed com­pla­cency about how your own team is far­ing.

In re­cent months, Labour’s par­lia­men­tary cau­cus has grown ac­cus­tomed to think­ing the sec­ond-term blues had set in for the Key gov­ern­ment, while – si­mul­ta­ne­ously – the pub­lic was get­ting bet­ter ac­quainted with Labour leader David Shearer, and was grad­u­ally warm­ing to him.

Surely by 2014, the two trend lines would de­liver an elec­tion vic­tory for the cen­tre-left.

It may still hap­pen. Yet last week, Labour’s imag­ined pro­ces­sion to vic­tory hit its first ma­jor pot­hole when the polls showed the pub­lic’s dis­en­chant­ment with the gov­ern­ment had gone into re­verse, while sup­port for Shearer as an al­ter­na­tive PM had slightly de­clined.

This could have been ig­nored as ‘‘mar­gin of er­ror’’ stuff but for the es­ca­la­tion that fol­lowed.

With ex­quis­ite bad tim­ing, ‘‘two se­nior [Labour] MPs’’ al­legedly told po­lit­i­cal blog­ger Dun­can Garner just why the Labour cau­cus ‘‘hated’’ Labour MP David Cun­liffe, Shearer’s only cred­i­ble ri­val for the lead­er­ship.

In a speech to Grey Power, Shearer then tried in ham­fisted fash­ion to forge a con­nec­tion with heart­land New Zealand by re­lat­ing an anec­dote about how some­one in his elec­torate was seen paint­ing the roof on their house, while on a sick­ness ben­e­fit.

That wasn’t fair, Shearer said, adding that he had no time for peo­ple who didn’t pull their weight.

It was a cu­ri­ous way for Shearer to spot­light the is­sue of fair­ness in so­ci­ety, just as un­em­ploy­ment hit fresh highs.

Labour will never be able to outdo Na­tional when it comes to get­ting tough on wel­fare re­cip­i­ents, and Shearer’s ap­par­ent de­ci­sion to en­dorse tak­ing a hard­line on wel­fare will have won him few con­verts on the cen­tre right, even as it un­der­mined his im­age of be­ing a Mr Nice Guy, one far re­moved from the dirty busi­ness of po­lit­i­cal dog whistling.

Shearer has since taken a drub­bing on the bl­o­go­sphere for sig­nal­ing to con­ser­va­tive vot­ers in this fash­ion.

Per­haps his mes­sage should not have come as such a sur­prise.

Labour has al­ways drawn a pol­icy dis­tinc­tion be­tween the work­ing poor and the ben­e­fi­ciary poor and sig­nif­i­cantly – un­der the He­len Clark ad­min­is­tra­tion – the Work­ing for Fam­i­lies pack­age of­fered no as­sis­tance to ben­e­fi­cia­ries. Even so, Shearer’s readi­ness to pile in on those re­ceiv­ing sick­ness ben­e­fits will have done lit­tle to en­dear him to the party ac­tivists that Labour will need to mo­bilise its vote in Elec­tion 2014.

That’s the trade-off. Clearly, the opin­ion polls must be telling Labour that wel­fare re­form is a rel­a­tively pop­u­lar pol­icy among the wider pub­lic. Still, Shearer’s timid sig­nal that he is not averse to crack­ing down on wel­fare bludgers has been taken in Labour cir­cles as an im­plicit slur against ev­ery­one cur­rently get­ting a sick­ness ben­e­fit, and the anec­dote has been greeted with dis­may by party ideal­ists.

Iron­i­cally, it was David Cun­liffe who re­cently ar­gued that one rea­son Labour fared so poorly at the last elec­tion was that its poli­cies were seen as lit­tle dif­fer­ent from those of the gov­ern­ment.

On wel­fare re­form, that (again) shap­ing to be the case.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see whether Shearer con­tin­ues in the same puni­tive vein, or changes tack on wel­fare pol­icy to try and re­pair the dam­age within his own ranks.

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