Let Shearer be Shearer

There is an episode of the West Wing called “Let Bartlett be Barlett” (S1E19).

The staff begin to realize that the Bartlet administration has been ineffective because it has been too timid to make bold decisions, focusing instead on the exigencies of politics. Finally, Leo confronts President Bartlet with his own timidity, challenging him to be himself and to take the staff “off the leash.” – in other words, he seeks to “Let Bartlet be Bartlet”. The President and his staff resolve to act boldly and “raise the level of public debate” in America.

This is what David Shearer needs to do also.

I agree with the NZ Herald editorial that says:

They say Leader of the Opposition is the worst job in politics. It requires unceasing, carping criticism of everything the Government does and a relentlessly negative outlook on the country’s condition and prospects under current policies. Somehow this hapless individual is supposed to be popular too.

David Shearer, elected leader of the Labour Party after the last election, has clearly decided this job description is not for him. Whatever he has been doing since his elevation he has not been out front on most of the issues that are making this a testing year for John Key’s Government. There is a view that he is to blame for the fact these issues have not dented National’s standing in two recent polls or lifted Labour’s support. The concern seems to have permeated his own office with the resignation of his chief of staff, Stuart Nash.

If the departure of Mr Nash signals a change of style for Mr Shearer, it would be a mistake. Mr Shearer is clearly not a tub-thumping politician. He seems a normal, thoughtful, cautious and fair-minded citizen. 

Those in Labour who are getting so worked up about the fact they have not gone up in the polls, despite National dealing with some unpopular issues, need to realise that beyond the beltway people are not talking over morning tea about how David Shearer did in the House. Yes, he has some way to go to be a confident and authoritative presence in the House. But he will not become Prime Minister purely by being a good attack dog in the House, and nor does he need to be. That is why you have a Deputy.

Where there is fair criticism of Shearer has been his inability, to date, to articulate what he stands for and how his beliefs are different to both Phil Goff’s and John Key’s. The Goff led Labour achieved a near 100 year low for their vote. David Shearer must avoid being tuned turned into Goff-lite.

The problem, as I understand it from a couple of Labour people, is that David Shearer does have some innovative and exciting ideas around policy, ones that break the stereotype of right vs left. But the problem is he has been unable to get them through his caucus, who remain largely wedded to their current policies.

As the Herald editorial says:

 People do not follow leaders who lack the confidence to be themselves.

The role of political leadership is more than being chairman of the board, or the caucus. Don Brash did not let Caucus decide his Orewa speech. John Key in Opposition did not have Caucus vote on his agreement with Helen Clark over the anti-smacking law compromise. That show of leadership won him huge acclaim at the time.

Likewise in Government, Helen Clark and John Key did not let Caucus determine key policies. In fact one could argue they wouldn’t let Caucus determine a bus timetable!

Shearer needs to start putting out policies and ideas which define him. I probably won’t like most of them, and that is not a bad thing. But neither is it a bad thing, if his caucus don’t like 100% of them also. What is important is that he likes them, and backs them. Leadership is about telling your caucus “these are the policies I want to lead on, back them or find yourself a new leader”. Decision making by committee of 34 is not a good option.

David Shearer is genuinely nice guy, who wants the best for New Zealand (as most, but not all, MPs do). It is incredible that only two and a bit months after Parliament has resumed this year, that some in Labour are already backsliding over their choice. You have to take a medium to long-term strategic view. What matters isn’t the polls at the moment, or how the House is going. What matters is whether or not there is a three year strategy designed to get Labour and its leader perceived as the Government in waiting, and that the right steps are being taken to implement that strategy.

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