The election is over, so the work begins. Labour has its new face in David Shearer, but now has a mountain to climb to win 5-10% of National's voters over to its side (and a few back from the Greens). So how does it do that?

Labour's choice of David Shearer as the party's new leader represents a fair bit of gauntlet and a hell of a gamble. The gamble is obvious – you have to go back to founder Harry Holland in 1919 to find Labour choosing a leader with less parliamentary experience. The gauntlet the party is laying down is not just to the National-led government, but also to the public, challenging voters to look at them anew – and to allow them time to reform.

Shearer's selection may be as much about relationships within caucus as it is politics, but to the country it represents change, which will be welcomed. Voters are ready to put the Clark years behind them. But it's step one on a long journey.

Where to next? Well, let's think about that.

With Christmas almost upon us, Labour has a little time. But Shearer will want to put holiday plans to one side, for he has an immense amount of work to do and he needs to get out and about. And in these troubled times he can't afford to assume the public will be particularly forgiving.

First impressions count in every walk of life and politics is no different. His impression thus fas has been likeable and dedicated, a little tongue-tied and uncertain; plus there's been the suggestion he's being run by Labour's old guard.

He needs to overcome each of those perceptions rapidly. Even the likeability. Looking at John Key, voters saw a dorky guy they could relate, but also knew that no-one could be such a senior currency trader, especially one who made $50 million, without a spine of steel. Shearer can't allow himself to be pigeon-holed as a bleeding heart with no backbone.

He needs an immense amount of media training, he needs to find the words to express what he – and his Labour party – stand for, and he needs to shake off anything that suggests he is the puppet of the Clark, or even Lange, era Labour party.

And, of course, he needs to unify his caucus. His first meeting should be (or already should have been) with David Cunliffe.

Looking towards National, he's best to start graciously. Shearer's appeal is largely post-political. Given his striking lack of experience, it has to be! Voters will want him to be someone they can like and admire, not bitterly partisan or negative.

He wants to be seen as a reluctant politician, driven by service and hope not ego or ideology. He needs to be someone people want to vote for, so that they're willing to consider him when they start not wanting to vote for the other guy.

Having said that, elections are almost always lost in this country, not won. And that comes in part from Opposition pressure. He has to rattle this government and have some success within the first year, or else the party will look again at Cunliffe or move on to Grant Robertson. Shearer doesn't have long.

It'll be interesting to see how Shearer tackles his battle with Key. It's often said that you have to attack an opponent's weakness. But in truth you have to beat them at their strength well. So while Shearer will want to establish a sense of purpose and credibility in contrast to the "muddle through" and "smile and wave" image Labour wants to pin on Key, he will have to "out-likeable" the PM as well.

Looking outward, the defining issues of the next few years will be economic. Labour has just elected itself its first openly gay deputy leader in Robertson, but while that's something the party can take pride in, it should not be making a big deal of it. Voters need to know it's about them and their money worries.

Labour's image is too closely tied to identity politics and a "thou shalt" attitude to governing. Shearer and Roberston together have talked about "reconnecting" and that means bread and butter issues and a focus on their normality rather than their exceptionalism.

Let others talk about his efforts to save the world. Shearer must let his work speak for itself; people are already impressed. He needs to focus on the ordinary, on others and talk of that in order to connect. Cunliffe's suggestion back in the Mt Albert by-election that Shearer was "a cross between Mother Theresa and Indiana Jones" is not one to play up. Labour's problem is that it has seemed too removed, too smugly suburban; that it knows better and is better.

Shearer needs to play against that. The risk with David Cunliffe was the impression of intellectual superiority; Shearer must call a spade a bloody tool from day one.

The new leader says he wants Labour to be "a party of ideas", and so he should. He will need a big idea sooner rather than later which represents his values and identity and says something about this "fresh" Labour party – as JFK introduced the Peace Corp, given Shearer's background he should be looking for something representative of practical service and generosity.

But big airy fairy ideas would be poison. Labour's job now is to keep it real. And to grab a few ideas from National, to show it can reconnect with the centre.

That's an immense list of expectations for any new leader, let alone one who hasn't even seen a term in parliament. And none of it works if it's not genuine.

Oh, and did I mention he's only got a year? Eighteen months tops. Can he do it? We'll watch and see. If he's not close in the polls by early 2013, he's mincemeat.

But if the MP for Mt Albert does that... if the economy continues to struggle... if people's patience runs out and some of the blame can be pinned on National rather than Europe or "the global economy"... then Labour has a chance. And if National stumbles this term, it becomes a decent chance and 2014 is in play.

Comments (25)

by Tim Watkin on December 13, 2011
Tim Watkin

The first speech was interesting – "clean and clever NZ" works well as a line. Shearer could drop the 'green'. Getting out around the country is smart, as I noted, and would be a good use of his summer. And the call for an invite onto National's poverty council is a good idea as well, hitting that gracious, non-partisan tone I mentioned.

A good start.

by BeShakey on December 13, 2011

Labour doesn't need to beat National, but rather the right coalition. So theyd only really need to take a couple of seats if, for instance, they manage to take all of the Maori Party seats and Peter Dunne's. This election was actually closer than people think, and Labour isn't as far from government in 2014 (seats wise) as some people seem to think.

by Tim Watkin on December 13, 2011
Tim Watkin

No, Labour doesn't need to beat National. But it does need more than 5% of its vote, as I said. A few seats won't do it, Shakey, it needs party votes and to do that it's still got to successfully take on National.

National, on the other hand, will now stress its experience and will want to expose Shearer in the House before Christmas.

by Ben Curran on December 13, 2011
Ben Curran

They definitely need to go after the party vote. Preferably that currently held by national. I live in a small but statistically significant amount of terror that they will make the stupid mistake of trying to get back the votes they lost to the greens though.

by John Hudson on December 13, 2011
John Hudson

David Shearer might start by pointing out that National/Act/United Future with just over 48 percent of the total vote does not have the mandate John Key claims they have for asset sales. Whatsmore the last poll shows some 75 percent of New Zealanders are opposed to the proposed sales.

This suggests that quite a few voters on the centre right don't think selling off high- dividend -returning state assets is a clever move.

With the right pitch Mr Shearer might put the Government's one vote majority on this issue - assuming the Maori Party sticks by its word - under pressure.

by David Savage on December 13, 2011
David Savage

I think there's a serious chance the next government will be a labour-green govt. In ways, think the green swing we've seen will continue and will aid this, providing the greens can do their share of getting blue voters to turn their way.

YES labour needs to focus on getting voters they lost to national back and let the Greens do there thing - quiet collaboration.

by Paul Williams on December 13, 2011
Paul Williams

Just one quick thing, I'm not convinced Shearer's limited media skills are the major barrier you, and Brian Edwards, suggest. Not using endless speaking points is increasingly appealing to a jaundiced public.

by Bruce Thorpe on December 13, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

Agree 100%, Paul

by Tim Watkin on December 13, 2011
Tim Watkin

Ben & David, Labour's key focus has to be taking the centrists off National. It's the simplest and truest maxim of politics, especially in NZ – elections are won in the centre.

But let's be real – almost all the increased Green vote came from Labour, so if Labour gets its reforms right and comes across as fresh and vital, the initial gains are likely to be at the expense of the Greens. But let' also no pretend the Greens will sit idly by and let that happen, so some tension on the left is likely. Fact is, however, both G & L need to reach right.

by Tim Watkin on December 13, 2011
Tim Watkin

Paul and Bruce, I think Brian and I have also pointed to a lack of expertise across all policy... but re media, I guess we see the world through the lens of our professional lives.

What I'm wondering is why you don't think media matters. Few people turn out to public halls these days, so how else are people going to hear from, relate to and "reconnect" with Labour's leader if not via the media. Yes, you can be a bit bumbly and nice and people may find it refreshing. But at some point it jars as something simply lacking. Shearer wants to be Prime Minister, let's not forget. He needs to look like a leader, to explain his ideas, the policy, the reason for sacrifice, the difference between Labour and National and much more besides... it's not enough to be just a nice guy.

by Matthew Percival on December 13, 2011
Matthew Percival

As a leader Shearer needs to sell himself as a potential Prime Minister and be able to sell his party policy. I'd never heard him before he talked on Newstalk ZB tonight and he definitely needs some training. He was about as smooth as a smashed vase and at this stage I doubt his ability to sell himself and his parties policy. Of course that can be worked on and no doubt it will.

I found it interesting that Shearer talked about a clean and clever NZ. I understand where he is coming from but how does that differ to the core message of the Green Party?

by Carl Anderson on December 14, 2011
Carl Anderson

tim, I don't think it is right to say that Labour needs to take 5-10 percent from National. I think the key point for Labour is to convince the people who did not vote at all in 2008 and 2001 to vote Labour.

Sure it would be useful to take a few percent off National, but I think the main aim should be to re-engage with the sort of person who voted left in the 1999-2005 elections, and has not voted since.

by k+r on December 14, 2011

@ Carl, thank you for finally pointing this out. The most disappointing thing about the election was the dismal voter turn out, and even more scary, the declining voter registration.

We have been watching the NZ election from Mexico, a country composed simultaneously, of the richest and poorest people in the world. Not to mention a pretty dubious democratic history. Nothing makes you want to shake the NZ public more that seeing how things work (or don't work) here.

But to the point, surely the discussion of what Shearer, or any other New Zealand politician, 'needs to do', should focus on having policy, and being true to it. The cynical attitude of telling the public what they want to hear in a media savvy, slickly groomed, PR reliant way, is what is demoralising the voting populace.

The decline of democracy has been discussed by people much smarter than me (see Ranciere's 'The Hatred of Democracy'), and I can't help but suspect that too much PR and too little real politics has a large part to play in this.

by Paul Williams on December 14, 2011
Paul Williams
What I'm wondering is why you don't think media matters. Few people turn out to public halls these days, so how else are people going to hear from, relate to and "reconnect" with Labour's leader if not via the media

Tim, I'm not saying the media don't matter but I am saying that I think the standard product is boringly repetitive and is, at least for me, increasingly ineffective. It's why I'm here or at publicaddress. Recall Clark reinvented her public self, circa 1996/7, by spending an enourmous amount of time visiting clubs and schools and workplaces across the country and directly interacting with people (I know she also had expert media advice from Mike Munro too). I think Shearer needs to do that, and it appears he will. I listen to Checkpoint, but many more don't.

by Steve F on December 14, 2011
Steve F



I concur with most of what you write. I have a sense that this bloke, if he plays the cards he has been dealt the right way, is going to be New Zealand's next Prime Minister. As you pointed out this will have to happen in 2014 otherwise he's toast. Rather than win back 5 to 10 per cent of national's voters he probably only has to mobilise about 30,000 of the million odd who sat on their bums on November the 26th. It is unlikely that the will be a repeat of the record setting low poll that has put this 50th parliament into place.

As for a spine of steel, one also needs a pretty stiff backbone to stare down a Mogadishu warlord. At a guess I would say the tensile strength of that spine would be marginally higher.  You are right on the money regarding media training. There are skeptics amongst the comments but the warm and cosy guy next feel will soon wear off. He will need the skill to clearly enunciate his messages in as few words as possible and avoid any temptation to even tip toe on the adversarial touchlines with the media.

There is no question the economy is going to struggle over this parliaments term and without a doubt the cost of living I think, is going to figure  as the most prominent issue in most peoples lives. Way beyond asset sales. I'm being brave here.

Beyond that it is my opinion that New Zealand politics has experienced a paradigm shift in the messages the people are sending through the polling booths. We are now seeing the seeds of a serious green movement that will shape future governments for the next generation. My crystal ball runs out of steam after that. A Labour Green coalition is as real a scenario as any come 2014 but to continue on your theme of gastronomic metaphors, if it ain't together in eighteen months then he's mincemeat on burnt toast. Which is what many of us will resort to if food prices can't be controlled.

by glenn p on December 14, 2011
glenn p

My apologies for focussing on only a small point, but can someone explain to me the big deal being made about Labour having to have a "new face"? I would guess that 80% of the population couldn't name more than 10 politicians. I think that 80% of the population wouldn't have been able to pick out David Cunliffe from an identity parade, let alone been able to tell you anything about him. I didn't know what he looked like until 2 weeks ago. The only reason I know that he is the "old face" and that David Shearer is the "new face" is that that is what the media has been telling me for the last 2 weeks. They could have told me the opposite and I wouldn't have been any the wiser. Anyone that Labour selected as leader would have been a new face. Arguably, people only really got their first good look at Phil Goff a month out from the elections, and hence his support began to rise.

by Paul Williams on December 14, 2011
Paul Williams

<blockquote>My apologies for focussing on only a small point, but can someone explain to me the big deal being made about Labour having to have a "new face"? I would guess that 80% of the population couldn't name more than 10 politicians.</blockquote>

That's certainly true, however it's also true that if everyone directly engaged in the process - media, pollies and others - knows you've been a Minister in a government that did the exact opposite of what you're now saying is a good idea, you've got no credibility. I think that's why the capital gains tax and GST off fruit and vege didn't "take", everyone knew Phil was part of a government that determinedly introduced a purist version of GST (fourth Labour government) and that he or other members of the fifth never considered a CGT in the nine years in office from 1999.

by Tim Watkin on December 14, 2011
Tim Watkin

Paul, Clark did put in those hard yards, thanks for the reminder. It's not an either/or. But how many meetings do you have to go before you get the attention of the 100,000+ voters who might see you on Q+A, let alone the half million on Close Up? You can't beat media for scale.

And how many people want to go out to political meetings these days rather than sit home and watch 'Two and a half men'?

Whatever you think of the media, it's still the main way people will judge a politician. And whatever the quality of that media, it's any leader's duty to do it well, be compelling and convincing. There is more than one way to do it well – and just coming across 'aw shucks' and nice can work for a while. But not for that long, not when you want to lead the country.

The "product" itself is almost irrelevant. It's how you project to the people watching/listening/reading.

by Paul Williams on December 14, 2011
Paul Williams

HTML fail, hopefully it's still clear what I was responding too?

by Paul Williams on December 14, 2011
Paul Williams

Tim, we don't disagree, much. Shearer needs "table stakes" and that's easiest won by being said to be credible in MSM, he's not there yet I agree. I accept that it's a metric that matters and he has to do better.

What I'm saying is that the Party needs more than this. It needs a leadership team committed to developing a new mandate from the membership and from the public it seeks to serve. From this, which is what Helen earned, he can and should take confidence talking to the media and the knowledge he know's what matters and why. His less-than-polished delivery will be less of an issue when he's sure of his substance.

by Paul Williams on December 14, 2011
Paul Williams

Actually, Tim, your comment that the "product" itself is irrelevant is where we do dramatically disagree. I think "the people" do care what it is that's being said, even if it's not entirely as they expect it.

by glenn p on December 14, 2011
glenn p

Thanks Paul, a good point.

by Tim Watkin on December 14, 2011
Tim Watkin

Paul, I agree it's not just a matter of media. The post had a bunch of prescriptions; I was just responding to your point.

I think we might be at cross hairs about "the product", as you put it. I thought you were saying that you found the media repetitive and boring these days. I'm replying that media quality is irrelevant to Shearer's performance. Whatever the media, he has to master it and communicate in a compelling fashion.

And well said, re what you wrote to Glenn. He was helping me make my point about the power of the media still – people don't recognise politicians or what they stand for except via the media's description.

by Paul Williams on December 14, 2011
Paul Williams

Tim, it appears we are mostly in agreement then.

It is true that politics is largely experienced through media but mainly when it's not experienced personally. I'm hopeful that Shearer will improve his media performance first by being clear about what needs doing differently. I do think then his performance, even if slightly different from the usual, will resonate.

It's also good to be able to have substantive discussions about the strategy as well as the policy thorugh forums such as this.

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