In her post yesterday first-class honours graduand in Political Studies, JC, explained the rules for next week’s confidence vote on the Labour Party leadership and for the selection process which will be automatically triggered if David Shearer fails to win 60% plus one (or 22 out of 34 Caucus members) support for his leadership.
If Shearer doesn’t get those 22 votes in Caucus, it seems highly unlikely that he will survive a leadership contest a month or so later, in which Caucus, the party membership and union affiliates have a 40/40/20 say. Failure to gain the required numbers in next week’s Caucus vote would itself be corrosive of confidence and support. On the other hand, Shearer’s chances of getting those numbers have been enhanced by his improved showing in the polls following his Labour Party Conference speech last November and his axing of David Cunliffe from Labour’s front bench. And it is the polls which will decide Shearer’s ultimate fate. That is not such good news for the Labour leader. To paraphrase Aristotle, one rousing speech does not a victor make, and there are already signs of weakening poll support for Shearer. As several commentators have noted, the media increasingly turn to the Greens for comment, as if they, rather than Labour, were the official Opposition. And Shearer’s media image remains a problem. The blame for that must lie in part with bad advice.
Faced with criticism of his seemingly ineffectual leadership Shearer was advised to talk and act tough. He clearly took that advice. His essential message to the November conference was: I’m running the show, I make the decisions, I’m in charge. That was the talking tough component. His subsequent interviews were notable for the number of times he said ‘I, me, my’, a self-conscious attempt to reassert his personal dominance of the party. Acting tough, in the theatrical sense of the term, came in the form of the public flogging of David Cunliffe. Cunliffe had declined to give an absolute assurance that he would support Shearer in the February confidence vote. He was not only entitled to do so, but right to do so. Shearer’s demand – by no means, I understand, restricted to Cunliffe – that he not merely reveal his voting intentions for the secret Caucus ballot but guarantee to support the leader in that ballot – was democratically, constitutionally and morally improper.
The show trial of Cunliffe nonetheless proceeded, soon to be followed by the predictable verdict of banishment to the back benches. At the time, I wrote an open letter to Shearer accusing him of dishonesty and described his bullying treatment of Cunliffe, intended primarily for public consumption, as evidence not of strength in leadership but of weakness. Nothing since has provided me with any reason to change that opinion. Shearer is still doing most of the talking about himself, still involved in the first-person defence and praise of his own leadership: ‘I, me my…’ And there it was again in his State of the Nation speech: ‘I can tell you that today I’m refreshed. I’m fired up and I’m raring to go. The somewhat curious thing is that the lines, delivered with almost evangelical fervour, weren’t spontaneous; they were scripted, there word for word in his speech notes.
But they cannot disguise the fact that Shearer should not have to ‘tell’ his audience that he’s fired up and raring to go, that it should have been obvious not just on this occasion, but since the day he was elected leader. It hasn’t. Nonetheless, as it was intended to, the line made it onto both the TVNZ and TV3 news bulletins along with this little piece of stand-up: ‘Two days ago, John Key had an epiphany: We have a youth unemployment problem – we need apprentices. Good on him. I thank the focus group that brought that to his attention.’ Actually it’s a pretty good line. But have another look at Patrick Gower’s TV3 News report on the speech. After both the ‘fired up’ and the ‘focus group’ lines Shearer gives this slightly self-conscious, questioning smile, which seems to say, ‘Did you like that? That was a good one, wasn’t it?’ The simple fact is that Shearer isn’t comfortable in the ’talk and act tough’ role.
The best demonstration of this was in his response to the media scrum after Cunliffe had been dismembered in Caucus. He was a stumbling, bumbling, incoherent wreck. I suspect he was deeply upset by the lynch-mob mentality and the savagery that had dominated the previous hour. He eventually walked off, refusing to answer any more journalists’ questions. Shearer is a reasonable man, a conciliator by nature. He has to stop trying so hard to be something he isn’t. He can’t carry it off and we will see through it. He is a poor actor. This week John Key gave him a lesson in strength. He sacked two under-performing ministers, in all probability ending their parliamentary careers. Yet he’s taken little or no flak for what seems like a pretty brutal thing to do. Maybe that’s because he didn’t act the strong leader, didn’t say much about it at all, was matter-of-fact about a necessary decision. Maybe that’s the lesson.