Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Slow and careful journey to the new-look Labour

David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell
David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Labour leader David Shearer and Prime Minister John Key had a brief conversation last month on the short walk from the debating chamber to the Legislative Council Chamber for the official opening of Parliament.

Shearer had been elected leader a week earlier.

Key offered his congratulations, and Shearer asked him if he had any advice.

Key advised him to seize the moment early in his leadership to make changes he really wanted pushed through.

Shearer is unlikely to take Key's advice.

Labour may have elected a leader who, like Key, is hard not to like, but Shearer will be quite a different kind of leader.

Shearer is in no rush. He will be bold when he is good and ready to be bold.

As one Labour MP likes to characterise it, the track to government is not a sprint.

It's not a marathon, either. It's more like a 1500m race.

The Ports of Auckland dispute gives some clue about what to expect of the Shearer leadership.

He has met the baying from the left and goading from the right to support the union in the dispute with silence.

Darien Fenton has expressed general concerns about casualisation of work at the port but the party has backed away from the view that the union must be defended to the death in every dispute with business.

Phil Twyford might have been close to Shearer's view when he floated the notion on National Radio this week that there may be too many ports in the north of the North Island and greater rationalisation might not be a bad thing.

Shearer won't be responding to every issue just because he is asked - in the way that John Key does and Phil Goff did.

For a start, he is not politically dexterous enough to do so. And having so little experience, he doesn't have the institutional knowledge of the party or politics generally.

His political compass will be grounded more in values than old Labour traditions.

He will be more positive generally. He will not automatically oppose. He will be measured.

Key's advice to Shearer to push through policy early was based on his own experience. He did it at one of his earliest Cabinet meetings in 2009 over the restoration of titular honours with no particular support from colleagues.

He clearly didn't know at the time that his honeymoon would last a full three years and he could have used his political capital at any point.

But even if Shearer were tempted to follow Key's advice, the party would not let him get away with issuing policy diktats or repudiating policy he thought was wrong.

The open leadership contest in which Shearer and David Cunliffe addressed party meetings is likely to have changed the expectations of the membership.

They will be looking for more of that, not less, as the party heads into review mode.

Labour is still a little brittle after the leadership battle.

Shearer may be an ageing surfer, but he is not yet riding a wave of political support either with the public or within the party that would allow him to make policy by decree.

The Roy Morgan poll this week, the first since the election, shows no change in Labour's polling, putting it still at 27.5 per cent.

The first formal party event of the year is taking place this weekend but it is in more futuristic and optimistic mode.

The annual Labour Youth summer school near Orere Point on the Firth of Thames will be talking about what legacy a sixth Labour government - presumably a Shearer-led government - should have.

Next week at a caucus retreat in Taupo, some retrospection will begin.

There is policy to be reviewed but again, there is no rush. Next week the party will look at how that process will run.

There is no shortage of policies for possible repudiation - the capital gains tax, raising the age of superannuation to 67, compulsory KiwiSaver, and extending the in-work family tax credit to beneficiaries with children.

Of those, the capital gains tax policy is the least likely to go. It was thoroughly researched and announced and explained well in advance of the election.

But gradually raising the minimum age to receive superannuation from 65 to 67 and making KiwiSaver compulsory are another story.

Apart from the issue of whether it is fair to workers, it was a rush job announced by former leader Phil Goff only four weeks before the election . Billed as being courageous and responsible, it was mercilessly trashed by National and misunderstood by voters.

Next month Shearer will give a speech outlining areas of imminent change.

The welfare debate has already been sparked unofficially by Labour's Rangitikei candidate, Josie Pagani, who wrote in the Herald about how hard it was to explain to working people the fairness of extending in-work tax credits to beneficiaries.

It was a policy that cost Labour votes but has been defended as the moral thing to do.

Labour in New Zealand has some parallels with Labour in Britain. Under new leader Ed Milliband, Britain's Labour Party is repositioning to reflect austere fiscal realities and the public mood.

It has accepted, for example, public sector pay freezes in the face of stiff opposition from within the party, especially its union supporters.

Milliband is trying to advance policies that connect Labour to the public without creating divisions in his party.

Shearer will face the same challenge as he steers his party through a critical reform phase.

Labour under Goff swung to the left. Much of the messaging on policy was laced with class war undertones - "slog the rich, help the poor".

The in-work policy dilemma posed by Pagani exemplifies the big questions facing Labour.

Does the party continue to promote policy on the basis of principle that may lose it votes? Or does it take a more pragmatic approach?

Well, the pragmatists won the leadership contest. And that inevitably points towards the centre. But nothing will be done in a rush.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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