23 August 2013

Vacancy: Leader of the Opposition

‘A decent bloke, but….’ That kind of damning-with-faint-praise will sum up David Shearer’s leadership following his recent resignation. He’s in good company though, along with Bill Rowling and Phil Goff. These are leaders who had many fine qualities, but didn’t have the impact that was needed to see off a stronger opponent.
Along with opinion polls and TV appearances, leadership really does matter. It’s all very well to have popular policies, or at least to have fewer unpopular ones than the others. But a political party only thrives with a leader who can give voice to those policies in a manner that enough of the voters want to hear. And that voice must have impact on TV, as well as in the House.
The last straw for Labour MPs must have been Tuesday's inexplicable question from Shearer to Key about contact between the parties over the GCSB law. Key was incredulous that the question was put. He replied that there had been a meeting, and that Shearer had asked him to keep it confidential. And then there was the dead-fish stunt.... Shearer may as well have offered the House a noose to hang him with.
What Labour has lacked for some time is a stand-out leader of the likes of Savage, Kirk, Lange or Clark. And political leaders in a democracy are not just judged on individual merits. They are judged by comparison with their closest competitors. Even Shearer’s potential coalition ally, Russel Norman of the Greens, was making him look bad, without trying to.
John Key is at that stage in his prime-ministerial career where, even though still going strong, his persona is becoming divisive and he is forced to draw down political capital to get things done. The state asset sales, the Sky City deal and the GCSB Act are obvious examples. But he is far from being a spent force for the next election. And there are only a few cracks showing (in public) in the National Party’s support for him. He is perfectly capable of demolishing another Labour contender before the next election.  John Key is vulnerable, though. The Labour party might well ask itself which (if any) of the likely competitors for the leadership can stand up to Key and exploit those weaknesses. It will take more than a 'decent' liberal type to do that.


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