One of the odd things about Labour’s leadership battle is that David Cunliffe – Harvard graduate and business consultant – was seen as the left-wing candidate, while Shearer – international humanitarian and aid-worker – was regarded with suspicion by the Labour rank and file as as possible right-wing stealth candidate.
The ‘Shearer-the-stealth-candidate’ hypothesis has flared up again in the wake of his speech last week, and the subject’s being knocked around on Twitter, Public Address System, The Standard, Trotter etc. The main charges against Shearer are his reluctance to articulate traditional Labour values, his habit of copying Key’s rhetoric (he keeps repeating National’s ‘brighter future’ campaign slogan in addition to insisting that he’s not ideological but only interested in ‘what works’, viz Key). His speech gave a shout-out to a right-wing Finnish politician called Esko Aho – Gordon Campbell points out that Aho was an inspiration to Roger Douglas – adopted the standard right-wing talking points about the education system, faulting failing schools and bad teachers. And his office is briefing journalists that he’ll scrap Labour’s policy to extend Working for Families to beneficiaries.
I think the talk of education reform is about the influence of market-research on contemporary politics, rather than evidence of a right-wing agenda. Labour has figured out what National discovered four years ago: if you tell middle-class swing voters that their schools and teachers might fail their children and deprive them of the ability to succeed in life, they’ll fall to their knees and beg to vote for a political party that will prevent such an unthinkable disaster from occurring. So we’re now in the completely ridiculous position where both major parties are implementing or promising ‘radical reform’ to ‘fix’ one of the best performing school systems in the entire world. (At least Shearer wants to copy Finland, which does actually have a better school system than us, while the Nats are taking their inspiration from the US and UK, who we outperform by a huge margin.)
Repealing WFF to Beneficiaries is a no-brainer. It’s supposed to be about addressing child poverty, but to do that you have to get elected, and you can’t do that if your policy offends the three-quarters of a million WFF recipients in paid employment who like to think that they’re receiving a ‘working tax-credit’, not a benefit.
Shearer’s talk about Finland and the Aho government is less easily dismissed. Maybe it’s about creating a contrast with poll-driven John Key, if Shearer gives the impression that he’ll do what’s right and ‘fix the country’ rather than constantly run for re-election. Gordon Campbell has a substantive take on this, but I think that Shearer just sounds naive. What kind of significant reform can you introduce in three years that won’t just be rolled back by National in their next term, which will just be another bout of high-end tax cuts, lowering real median wages, worsening employment conditions, gutting the public service and privitisation? The best thing any left-wing government can do for New Zealand and its long-term economic growth is to stay in government for a looong time, thus keeping National out. Any effective policies they implement during that time is simply icing on the cake.
But lets say Shearer is a right-wing stealth candidate, planning to implement a radical right-wing agenda once in government. How could that possibly work? He’s going to have to rely on the Green Party – at a minimum – to pass his budgets. The Greens are obsessed with the problem of how to go into government and not suffer the grim fate of all the other coalition partners under MMP. If they think they’re propping up a Lange-Douglas style Labour they’ll withdraw confidence and supply faster than you can say ‘So will Winston Peters.’
I think the Fourth Labour government is at the heart of these fears about Shearer. Key can talk about being ‘non ideological’, ‘whatever works’, etc – but all of his policies are standard, right-wing ideology (none of which show any signs of working, as yet). Right-wing voters are confident it’s just rhetoric because they’ve never been betrayed by their own party to the degree that Labour supporters were by Douglas and Lange. So Key can move to the center and promise to maintain Labour policies like WFF, and still remain wildly popular with his own base. But when a Labour leader like Shearer tries to occupy the political center his own base gets panicked: it suggests the nightmare scenario of history repeating itself.
(Just to set down my own views on positioning yet again: Labour doesn’t need to move to the center, because Labour is the center. All they need to do is talk about their own values and articulate policy that matters to people (I don’t understand why they don’t talk about the labour market and low wages) and demonstrate that they’re competent and trustworthy. There are – literally – hundreds of thousands of voters who used to support Labour and currently don’t vote. They seem like a better group to target than trying to win right-wing votes off National, and you can win them without scaring the hell out of your own activists, who you reply on for fund-raising and campaigning.)