Why a Labour reshuffle just ain't enough

David Shearer is set to shuffle Labour's pack. The beltway crew seem to think it's overdue, but they're missing the deeper problem

So, David Shearer's planning a reshuffle of his front bench and folk such as John Tamihere and, well, just about everyone, reckons it's about time. The carping has started, so the Labour leader had better get on with it. But what he needs to realise is a reshuffle is only the beginning. In many ways it's the smallest part of the job.

Labour's front bench isn't performing. That's hardly a controversial statement, more a natural observation such as recognising the sky is blue. Labour's personnel is failing to engage with the public on core issues that matter to our wealth and health.

While Hekia Parata's offered up two of the worst-handled policy launches in living memory this year, most voters wouldn't even know who Labour's education spokesperson is. (Hint: First name, Nanaia. Still no idea? ...Exactly).

Health Minister Tony Ryall may be the safest pair of hands since George Nepia, but when you can so easily quip that the Labour spokeswoman's claim to fame is that she wants to make it easier to die... well, the material writes itself. (No idea who I'm talking about? Street, Maryan Street. Hmmm).

And what about Welfare? Paula Bennett has gone beyond the manifesto with the "social obligations" on beneficiaries, and while Jacinda Ardern is scoring some points in the House, she's not scoring in anyone's home.

Those were the three singled out for criticism by Tamihere this weekend, but even the well-regarded deputy Grant Robertson is playing second fiddle to Russel Norman on the Kim Dotcom story.

The fact is that the poll trend for National is down, despite of this. So Labour's not under great pressure. Yet. But party members can hardly be delighted by what they're seeing, as Tamihere has suggested.

The best work for Labour has been coming from further back, mostly Phil Goff (who's back in the headlines today with a story that ordinary punters will take note of - welfare in Australia), Andrew Little to some extent on ACC (although that's been gift-wrapped for him)  and Chris Hipkins (who helped expose Parata in one of her worst weeks).

So some promotions are in order, some egos will be wounded and Shearer will be a little less liked by some. So be it, amen.

But you know what? The personnel is what it is for the next two years and it's not the biggest problem.

For me, Labour's problem is not the who, it's the what. Never mind who's saying it, Labour just needs something to say. Oh, we hear there's a constitutional review going on (most voters would have fallen asleep before I even finished that sentence) and policy work going on behind the scenes. So far, so what?

What Labour's missing is ideas and, y'know, actual policy.

I thought the policy work went on in the Goff years so that when the party actually had more than a 5% chance of winning they were ready to front. I remember even a former National MP telling me how impressive Labour's policy work was... in 2010.

Two years on, where's the fruit of Labour's labour?

Classic example: David Parker has travelled the world talking about monetary policy, but where's a single concrete policy announcement that's come out of that? Something different? Russel Norman stayed home but has people talking bout quantitative easing because the Greens dared to have an actual opinion.

Labour's again in the shadows.

It's the same if you turn back to Welfare. Ardern can say what she doesn't like about Bennett's schemes, but when it comes to making a case for what she's taken to calling "social security" there's no substance.

Last term under Goff Labour argued there was little point putting out policy so far from an election; no-one pays attention until election year, and late in the year at that. That theory's daft, but the lesson seems to have gone unlearnt.

If you've nothing to say in the intervening years, why should anyone listen to you in a campaign? Labour needs to start a conversation, to earn voters' attention, to re-introduce itself to voters with more than waffle and negatives.

I find it hard to get enthused about any argument pro or agin David Shearer, because he's not the main problem. If the poor man actually had some policy to enunciate, he may not stutter so much. If his party had some stakes in the ground, he might be able to argue them with some apparent conviction.

This happens to parties that get a hiding at an election. Just ask Bill English. They're so scared of the polls and alienating the middle voters they need to win back that they end up saying nothing. At least, nothing with any conviction, anything you'd want to follow. The fear of offending some prevents them from speaking out.

The irony is that the only way to get the attention of the voters you need to win over and earn their respect is to actually stand. for. something.

And it's got to be real and relevant at the kitchen table. When your only new ideas in the public square are gay marriage, euthanasia and altering the Reserve Bank Act, you're not going to force a change of government

So Labour can reshuffle all it likes. And it should. But unless its MPs settle on some specific ideas and goals and give the new front bench something to say -- some core policy to espouse, some vision to inspire and some values to stand on -- it'll just be different faces, same result.