David Shearer and Helen Clark met in his office on Tuesday night. They discussed, inter alia, the difficulties faced by a Leader of the Opposition. Welcoming wrongdoers to hell, Rowen Atkinson’s ‘The Devil’ turns his attention to the large assembly of atheists present and says, ‘You must feel a right lot of charlies!’ It occurred to me that, if David Shearer becomes Prime Minister in, he will be well within his rights to address the same comment to the Shearer non-believers, myself included, who wrote him off two years earlier. So what does Shearer have to do to ensure that he has that moment to savour? For starters, he would do well to take note of the fate of his predecessor, Phil Goff. Here’s what I know from first-hand experience of knowing and working with Phil. He is highly intelligent, extremely hard-working, hugely politically experienced, a tough debater, morally scrupulous, a decent human being. His reputation as a minister in Helen Clark’s government was second to none, most notably in the Justice and Foreign Affairs portfolios. As a candidate for the highest office in the land his credentials would seem to have been impeccable.
So why isn’t he Prime Minister?
There are no doubt several reasons. But the major reason is that for the greater part of his term as Leader of the Opposition, he languished at under 10% in the ‘Preferred Prime Minister’ polls, while the gap between his party and National remained a chasm. This looks like an effect rather than a cause but it is in fact both. The cause of his low rating was primarily his inability to master what Ian Fraser has defined as ‘the art of acting yourself’ on television. And it was compounded by the unique ability of his opponent to be himself seemingly everywhere. The effect of Goff’s sustained single-figure rating in the Preferred Prime Minister polls, when combined with his party’s mediocre ratings, was to increase voters’ doubts about his fitness to run the country. No-one wants to back a loser. The self-fulfilling nature of political polls has long been denied by the people who make money from producing them, but it really is as obvious as the nose on your face: People prefer to back favourites.
Evidence of this, contained in recent British research on the effect of ‘the worm’ in televised political debates, has shown conclusively that audiences are strongly influenced in favour of a leader whom the worm ‘likes’. The research involved artificially manipulating the worm to heavily favour one leader in a political debate regardless of the quality of that leader’s performance. The debate was shown to separate audiences in different venues with the worm favouring a different leader in each. The audiences were then asked which leader they thought had won the debate. In both venues the leader favoured by the worm was declared the winner of the debate. Repetitions of the experiment produced the same result. Voters, it seems, are less confident in their own judgement if they perceive that judgement to be heavily at odds with majority opinion.
So a leader who languishes for months at the bottom of the polls faces enormous difficulty in overcoming voter perception that he or she has little or no chance of winning the election and is consequently not worth voting for. That difficulty is exacerbated by the political and social truism that the rungs of the ladder to success are wider apart at the bottom than they are further up. It’s traditional for low-polling party leaders to say they don’t care about the polls, ‘the only poll that matters is the poll on election day’. Shearer would be wise to care about the polls and to recognise the corrosive influence on voter perception of sustained low polling for himself or the Labour Party. He must get his poll ratings up and he cannot wait much longer to do it. But can it be done? Well, he might look to Helen Clark for inspiration.
In June, not long after an abortive attempt to persuade her to step down as leader, Helen’s rating as preferred prime minister was around 3%. Her party’s support was around 14%. In November of that year she came close to winning the election and would have done so had it not been for the treachery of Winston Peters – a blessing in disguise as it turned out. She went on to win three terms as Prime Minister. So if he can ignore the nonsense from the right that Helen is the Machiavellian force behind left-wing criticisms of his leadership, my advice to the present Member for Mount Albert is that he could probably do no better than to consult the former Member for Mount Albert for a little advice. And that at the risk of my looking ‘a right charlie’ if the advice works.