David Shearer was elected leader of the Labour party because he had an outstanding leadership record outside parliament and he represented a chance for Labour to make a new beginning.

He never found a way to show us his skills and he never created the new beginning Labour needs. 

The dead fish stunt will be installed by history as the cringing moment that brought it all down, but for months failure has felt like a matter of time. 

Although David Shearer was elected with the support of the previous leadership team, the point of picking a first term MP was to make a break with the direction that had lost consecutive elections. 

He started out making a priority of education and New Zealand's economic development, and of investment in science and skills to lift incomes. He hasn't talked much about any of that for more than a year. 

He was goaded by the press gallery's attention span. There is not much for the six o'clock news in talking about apprenticeships, or science education, or regional development, or the long tail of educational failure. But he knows those are the keystones of opportunity for middle New Zealand and those striving to join it. 

His interest and fluency in those topics gave him a credible alternative economic story to sell that matters a lot more to New Zealand's future than, well, the price of fish. He made progress with bold new energy and housing policies, but Labour still struggled to build a narrative about the National government, or an appealing story of its own. It had too little to say to regional New Zealand, where it no longer holds a single general seat. 

The constant regretful message I was getting came from people who hope to own their own home, or pay the mortgage, or who want to own their own small business, who hope their kids make a decent living - they want Labour to be for them, but too often they have felt that Labour speaks only for parts of the community. 

Change is painful, especially for those of us who are proud of what Labour has stood for and achieved since Helen Clark's government was elected, but defeat has consequences and Labour needs to tell a new story if it's going to bring down the government. 

Labour can't get elected by hiding from the public what it really wants to do. Unpopular policies have to go, not be clumsily repackaged. 

And out with unpopular policies must go those parts of the political organisation that prevented David Shearer from making the changes he knew had to be made. Labour is hamstrung by palace politics. Factional loyalty counts for more than performance or electability. Until Labour can be frank about that and tolerant of a contest of ideas, no leader will be successful.

I don't know who will lead Labour next. But Labour needs more than a lick of paint or snappier sound bites at six. It needs change.

Comments (21)

by Tim Watkin on August 22, 2013
Tim Watkin

I take your point about regional development, apprenticeships et al – I'm not sure the gallery wouldn't want to report those sorts of policies, if properly packaged... but I am sure that any leader has to walk and chew gum at the same time. You have to build the long-term cohesive policy platform and create a leadership narrative and have enough day-to-day stories to tell.

How specific can you be, Josie? What's a policy that must go? Or a new one that must arrive? Or an example of how the palace politics must change?

by Josie Pagani on August 23, 2013
Josie Pagani

They need to tell a story about what life would be like under a Labour government. And they need to talk directly to working New Zealanders about the things that concern them. More jobs, better jobs and higher wages. That requires discipline around policy and message, which means ditching anything that might be a good policy but doesn't directly demonstrate how Labour would create more jobs and higher wages. That will always disappoint some people in the party, but the alternative is an buffet approach to policy in an attempt to keep everyone happy, and the failure to tell a coherent story about what Labour stands for. 

by Katharine Moody on August 23, 2013
Katharine Moody

More jobs, better jobs and higher wages

Where's the fire in the belly in that? And how does that distinguish Labour from National (aside from maybe the higher wages)?

Surely Labour is more about more creating apprenticeships, providing free (really free) world class education for all (to the appropriate level of the individual's ability) and living wages.

 

 

by Josie Pagani on August 23, 2013
Josie Pagani

I agree Katherine - apprenticeships, skills, education, living wages - all of which lead to more jobs and higher wages because higher value jobs are created. David Shearer talked a lot about that when he was first elected. All the policies you mention should be in the forefront of campaigns. People get the fire in the belly when they see something happening in their region, exciting new businesses getting ahead, and their wages going up. Getting that right would distinguish Labour from National who have no plans for regional development or pro-active job creation. Asset sales and changes to the GCSB don't make a growth plan!

by Ross on August 23, 2013
Ross

Labour needs to tell a new story if it's going to bring down the government. 

I don't altogether agree. Governments often lose elections after voters get tired of them. Muldoon, Lange, Bolger and Clark are good examples. John Key is National's greatest asset but also their greatest liability. Voters will tire of him and his antics. However, that's not to say that Labour shouldn't attempt to hasten the process!

 

by Graeme Edgeler on August 23, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Governments often lose elections after voters get tired of them. Muldoon ...

Muldoon is a poor example. First elected in 1975, in 1978 the Labour Party got more votes.

by Win on August 23, 2013
Win

As one who always voted Labour - because my parents did - I now no longer vote Labour because they lack inovation and courage to set my world alight. If I were to vote for them again they would need to form a strong alliance with the Greens and turn their backs on Key's personality poltics and chidlish goading and go for it. Ignore his stupid jibes but someone does need to play him at his own game. Take a course in police psychological tactics because that's what he's using. Better still get an intelligent criminal to school them up on counter tactics. Labour also need to use means other than mainstream news media to get their message out. Need also to prepare carefully and be awake to the impact of new technology and how it can be used [for 'evil']. My god eco-light bulbs seem such a long way away from the GCSB bill now passed into law. [Where are the media them you need them aye?]

How can anyone promise more jobs and houses when the world economy is failing due to the greed of people like John Key.That expectation is probably a bit past it unless people want to live in cheaper housing areas which is what people 'back in the day' did and sold to move 'up'. If Labour are going to get my vote back they need to have policies that are carefully thought out, speak to founding principles and be courageous, united and tireless in spreading their message out to the people. BUT remember it is not only John Key Labour has to deal with but his US masters.

by Ross on August 23, 2013
Ross

Muldoon is a poor example. First elected in 1975, in 1978 the Labour Party got more votes.

Graeme, Muldoon was PM for 3 terms (9 years). In 1978, National won 51 seats, Labour 40. In 1984, National were routed.

by Lee Churchman on August 23, 2013
Lee Churchman

But he knows those are the keystones of opportunity for middle New Zealand and those striving to join it. 

That's your problem there. Mundane attempts to appeal to the "middle" makes the party nothing more than the mirror image of National. As you well know, politics does not operate along only one axis. The trick here is to shift the debate to your favoured axis.

The right dominate the debate in large part because they have managed to persuade most people that politics is about a tradeoff between efficiency promoting markets and moral concerns to be addressed by intervention. Hence, the left have nothing to fight with but woolly minded moral arguments. Given that this widely held view of economic management is false, it would behoove the left to start making the case that the welfare state is an efficiency promoting mechanism (because it is, and people who don't understand this just don't understand how modern societies work). But that would involve risk, brains and hard work, so good luck trying to persuade MPs of that.

The left can only win if it wins the contest of ideas, and more importantly, if it makes the debate one of ideas. 

by Henry Barnard on August 23, 2013
Henry Barnard

Although David Shearer was elected with the support of the previous leadership team, the point of picking a first term MP was to make a break with the direction that had lost consecutive elections. 

Really?  Is this what the point `was' or `should have been'?  I got the distinct impression the reason the `senior leadership' fell in behind Shearer was because they didn't want Cunliffe and felt that Shearer was the best person to achieve that goal (hence Parker dropped out so as not to split that vote)... with the hope that Shearer might turn out to be a good leader as well. Parker admitted today that they got the latter wrong but not a word about what I think was the primary motivation. Atleast this time there can't be any finger pointing at Cunliffe for Shearer's faliures. There was some attempt to blame Cunliffe for Goff's failures too.

Cunliffe has already articulated an alternative vision for the country under a Labour government  The irony is that even this work as seen by some as a form of disloyalty.  

 

 

by MJ on August 23, 2013
MJ

I think Graeme is aware of the history and he's saying that if the same votes were cast but using our current system of voting, not FPP that Muldoon would have been a one term PM. He got fewer votes than the opposition in both 1978 and 1981. This would tend to suggest the majority of the country didn't want him as PM.

by MJ on August 23, 2013
MJ

The main observation that Shearer's historians will make is fresh face, but the same old team behind him, which made it difficult to convince the public he represented a new era for paliamentary Labour. Goff had momentum at the end of the last election cycle and probably would have done just as well or better if he'd retained the leadership.

Shearer did his best in the circumstances which were difficult, but it is a job the Labour caucus should never have asked him to do. I hope he will stay and soon be a very good minister.

by MJ on August 23, 2013
MJ

Labour needs to regain the reputation for better ideas and competence in implementation that they had. This is the 5 point + gap- public trust in the competence of the whole Labour package. 

by Lee Churchman on August 23, 2013
Lee Churchman

Cunliffe has already articulated an alternative vision for the country under a Labour government  

Yeah, someone showed me this speech, which I had not seen before:

http://www.labour.org.nz/news/speech-learning-the-lessons-of-history

The whole speech reeks of sanity. 

by Matthew Percival on August 23, 2013
Matthew Percival

Will be interesting to see what Labour does with their Capital Gains Tax policy. This is one such policy that fits Josie's description of "unpopular".

I think the idea would be to drop the Capital Gains Tax policy for the time being and try to bring it in under a 2nd term government just like National did with it's mixed ownership model.

R&D Tax Credits is a policy Labour should look at bringing back. I'm not convinced it made any diffference to the economy last time we had it but it's the type of feel good, innovation friendly and pro-opportunity policy I'd like to see from Labour.

by Ross on August 23, 2013
Ross

The main observation that Shearer's historians will make is fresh face, but the same old team behind him

I'm not sure that is relevant. Let's face it, if Cunliffe becomes the leader he will have exactly the same team that Shearer had. Having said that, I think the focus on leader is a little misplaced.

by stuart munro on August 24, 2013
stuart munro

Cunliffe's speech is the first I've seen from Labour showing a mature economic understanding.

The expectations of New Zealanders - even National voters - include a country where people's lives steadily improve. Since Rogergnomics the lives of most have been going steadily backwards.

Labour supported monolithic industries like Sealord & Fonterra - but the path forward is small innovative enterprises like the maker movement. The growth strategy should be bottom up. One of the government roles is to assist with infrastructure to help those small enterprises to mature.

We have exceptional resources and exceptional people. It is parliament that has failed us.

 

by william blake on August 24, 2013
william blake

According to an insider, Shearer was handed his resignation speech without his knowledge; if you watch the video you can see the look of horror on his face as he gets to the end of the speech and mouths an expletive. It is said to have been written by Maryan Street but it could have been Cunliffe.

Maybe we need a leader who writes his own speeches.

by stuart munro on August 25, 2013
stuart munro

@ william - if he writes Key's resignation speech he'll be off to a good start.

by william blake on August 25, 2013
william blake

@ Stuart. Key's speechwriters (warning graphic content may disturb)

http://www.crosbytextor.com/counsel/

by Tim Watkin on August 25, 2013
Tim Watkin

@Ross, one thing a Cunliffe leadership may do is convince some of the MPs who have been there too long to step away come next year's election...

@Matthew – don't think the CGT is that unpopular or going anywhere. Cunliffe was finance spokesman when it was introduced right? And it's pretty simple to say 'we want you to invest in your own home, but housing speculators who suck money away from the productive sector do us no good and plenty of harm'. Agree with it or not, it's a simple message that resonates, especially in middle class Auckland. The biggest threat to it is that NZF don't support it, and so it could go to keep Winston happy!

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