Why Shearer failed

Back in December 2011 I wrote:

On balance I think Shearer has a greater chance of leading Labour to victory, for reasons I have written about previously. But I will say that Shearer is a somewhat risker option. There is greater potential to wins over the hearts and minds of New Zealanders and get Labour’s party vote back into the mid 30s or highers. But there is also a greater risk that Shearer just can’t hack it, and Labour stays weak or gets weaker.

So why did Shearer fail? I think it is a bit superficial to say it is just because he was a nice man, not hard enough for politics. I think there were a number of factors.

  1. Failed to capitalise on his background to portray himself as an “anti-politician”. The public love outsiders and don’t like insiders when it comes to politics. That is why both Don Brash and John Key did so well in the polls. Shearer needed to focus on being the Michael Joseph Savage type of leader who set out his vision for New Zealand, and didn’t spend every second criticising the Government. A classic example is he said he wanted to avoid “gotcha” politics yet for around 150 question times in a row his question to the PM has been a gotcha “do you stand by all your statements” type question.
  2. Didn’t gather the right staff around him. I’m not blaming the staff, as they are often unfairly blamed for things. But is has been apparent that there were no senior staff with the authority and respect to impose the leader’s decisions on the wider parliamentary team.
  3. The old guard remained in control. Shearer was their candidate to stop Cunliffe, but they remained dominant, which meant the caucus never unified.
  4. No strategy. Labour’s major policies appeared to be focus group driven to respond to concerns about foreigners and the like. There was no over-arching strategy which was about having known for three things he would do differently that could resonate with people.
  5. No political management of the party. The change to the leadership rules, the further entrenching of union power, the man ban proposals all happened on his watch and undermined him. To be fair to him, normally deputy leaders take care of most of the party management issues and one can speculate as to why this didn’t happen in this case!
  6. A lack of confidence with media and speaking. Shearer can be an excellent speaker when he is saying what he really thinks and believes. But too often he was having to promote policies which I think he was half hearted about. When you have to think about what is the correct thing to say – rather than to just speak from instinct, makes the job harder. It is a skill you can learn, and he struggled with. But when speaking more off the cuff to large groups he could be very persuasive.

I regard the first of my points as the most important. Labour should have developed a 33 month strategy around how to position David Shearer as the next Prime Minister, and then developed policies, communication plans and the like which all worked within that strategy. They needed to have major vision and policy announcements far earlier in the piece so the public would want to hear more and more of the man who would be PM.

The Dom Post editorial notes:

However, Mr Shearer’s biggest failing was that he was never able to convey the impression that there was anything he particularly wanted to achieve as prime minister. On his watch Labour responded to public anxiety about the high cost of housing by unveiling proposals for a government home building programme, a capital gains tax and a ban on foreigners investing in the residential property market. The party responded to concerns about the high cost of electricity by promising to scrap the electricity market and put the industry back under the control of Wellington bureaucrats. Housing and electricity costs are both issues that resonate with focus groups but neither are the sort to excite supporters or persuade the politically undecided to get out of their armchairs.

As leader Mr Shearer was a stunt in search of a philosophy. The strategy concocted around him did not wash and, with the help of his colleagues, he rightly came to the conclusion that things were not going to get any better while he remained leader.

I think this is right. Shearer was meant to be a leader who could appeal to centrist voters, but instead his caucus and advisors pushed him to the left, so that Labour was pushing populist and nationalist policies that appeal to hard left and Green voters, and an overall policy agenda well to the left of the Clark/Cullen Government.

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