John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: 90 days to save Shearer's bacon

David Shearer's new chief of staff has little time to turn round the Labour leader's fortunes. Photo / Sarah Ivey
David Shearer's new chief of staff has little time to turn round the Labour leader's fortunes. Photo / Sarah Ivey

David Shearer's new chief of staff, Fran Mold, has three months at most to resuscitate his flagging leadership of the Labour Party.

If his and Labour's opinion poll ratings are still in the doldrums come the party's annual conference in early November and remain there ahead of the Christchurch East byelection shortly afterwards, then it is odds on Shearer is a goner.

While there may yet be no consensus on who should replace him, the factions in the Labour caucus will ultimately do a deal which ensures there is just one candidate for leader - thus avoiding the distraction of a party-wide leadership election required under Labour's new rules and which could take weeks.

The lack of an obvious successor may be saving Shearer's bacon right now. But that is not a sustainable reason for keeping him in the job.

The return of Mold, his former chief press secretary, should bring some much-needed direction to Shearer's parliamentary office which insiders say is lacking in the political expertise that a leader lacking in experience so desperately needs.

Even the best political advice can do little, however, to remedy the biggest problem confronting Labour - the absence of any palpable mood among centre-ground voters for a change of government.

Shearer has to convince doubters within his ranks that National's diminishing list of allies gives Labour a good chance of governing in some capacity after next year's election - and that he is the person who can maximise Labour's vote even if it still falls a long way short of National's.

To that end, Mold needs to get him to do at least six things. First, Shearer needs to relax. When he tries to sound forthright, he sounds uptight. He sounds like he does not believe what he is saying. He needs to choose the right words and let them make his point.

Second, Shearer should be delivering speeches which reveal exactly what he stands for. The public does not have the foggiest. The public might not turn up to hear him. But the media will.

Third, Shearer needs to relentlessly target the middle ground. That will at times mean taking conservative stances that annoy the Labour left. Too bad. The centre is where many conservative-minded Labour voters now sit.

Fourth, he needs to get his caucus talking about the issues which matter to the average person. Shearer's biggest success has been Labour's promise to build 100,000 affordable houses over 10 years. He needs to ask himself why that has been popular and replicate that across other portfolios.

Fifth, he needs to be more strategic when it comes to picking fights with National. But he needs to pick some fights with the Greens to show who is going to be the boss in any governing relationship.

Sixth, he needs to bang a few party heads together and take control of this year's Labour conference so it becomes a platform for him rather than an embarrassment for the party.

In short, he is still the leader. He still has time to lead. But not much.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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