Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Shearer's 'X-factor' not enough to save Labour

David Shearer's not the answer to all Labour's problems, writes Brian Rudman. Photo / Herald on Sunday
David Shearer's not the answer to all Labour's problems, writes Brian Rudman. Photo / Herald on Sunday

David Shearer "might well have the X-factor," acknowledges one slightly jaundiced veteran of many Labour electoral battles. "The trouble is, no one knows what it is at this stage."

His dilemma is one facing many in the Labour Party.

The mini-primary being conducted before next Tuesday's caucus vote on the successor to retiring leader Phil Goff is being portrayed as an improvement on the way Helen Clark tossed her crown to her deputy on her way out the door three years ago.

But with the contest already half over, the apparent front-runner remains something of a mystery man. He's come among us after years of risking life and limb and doing good works in the deserts of the East, offering to deliver us from the rotten bunch presently running the country.

True, the saviour from the East is a great Christmas myth, but is it really the way to choose the man who would be leader of the Labour Party and, one day, possibly, Prime Minister? Such trepidations seem lost on the hordes of commentators in the media and the blogosphere who have been rushing to join the party faithful leaping aboard the Shearer bandwagon.

They see him as the self-made outsider with a good back story and find the symmetries with the John Key rise to power, and the thought of the two locked in contest, irresistible.

For others, Mr Shearer's primary appeal is he's ABC - anyone but Cunliffe. Labour's finance spokesman David Cunliffe certainly triggers strong emotions within the party. While his supporters argue "it's no time for amateurs," and point to his ministerial track record, his detractors point to a lack of the personal touch and "arrogance" in his TV appearances that they believe is a major voter turn-off. With David Parker's sudden withdrawal from the battle, that left them no one else but Mr Shearer.

Not that they see their candidate in such negative terms. He's their very own John Key figure. An international success story in the aid industry whose occasional stumble in his new job will appeal to the public as evidence of his disconnect from the bad old politics.

The question remains: if selected, can he unleash the "X-factor" his supporters talk about and lure Labour's voters back to the polling booths, casting both votes for Labour?

There is a risk that too much is being made of charisma in this contest. "X-factors" don't win elections, good organisation does, and if Labour is looking to rebound from last month's poor showing, that is where its focus should be.

Goff has been fingered for his failure to attract votes to Labour and, as leader, the buck does stop there. But that doesn't absolve party campaign strategists like Trevor Mallard who had so little belief in their leader's electability, that they chose to run a one tick campaign, promoting electorate candidates at the expense of the leader and the party.

National, the Greens, New Zealand First all promoted their leader. Labour didn't and voters responded accordingly, taking this as a sign it was okay to split their vote. Even Mr Shearer admits he couldn't count on all his family voting for Labour.

In his Mt Albert electorate, Mr Shearer attracted a personal vote of 16,525, but the party vote for Labour was 10,492, just 100 ahead, on the night, of the National vote. Mr Cunliffe did even worse in the one-time safe Labour seat of New Lynn, losing the party vote to National, which scored 1100 votes more than Labour's 10,789. However, Mr Cunliffe's personal electorate vote of 15,192 was 4475 ahead of his National rival.

It was a pattern reflected in traditional Labour strongholds throughout the country. In Wellington, National won the party vote in this traditional Labour city, 113,126 to 81,933 for Labour. Yet the Labour candidates were returned, some with increased majorities. One of the few bright spots for Labour came in the Labour heartlands of South Auckland, where the party vote increased.

But overall, Labour's share of the party vote - which decides the proportion of seats in Parliament - dropped to 27 per cent. However its candidates collected 35 per cent of the vote, a good 8 per cent more than the crucial party vote.

In other words, many potential Labour voters took their cue from the party strategists and, after casting a vote for the Labour candidate, indulged their fancies, donating their party vote to the Greens or to Winston Peters or Mana. That was an organisational failure.

Harking back to the pulling power of leaders, it's also worth recalling that it wasn't the nice non-politician with the X-factor, Mr Key, that rescued National after its much more calamitous defeat in 2002; it was this year's unelectable, figure of fun Don Brash. Stirring up middle-New Zealand's fears over the possible implications of a court ruling over Maori claims to the foreshore and seabed, then new National leader Dr Brash managed to almost double National's vote in 2005, its party vote rising from 20.93 per cent to 39.10 per cent and its seat count up from 27 to 48. Three years later, under Mr Key, National added another 5 per cent and took office.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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