John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Christmas cheer comes early for Shearer

Labour party leader David Shearer, visit Nelson Park School in Napier. Photo / Paul Taylor
Labour party leader David Shearer, visit Nelson Park School in Napier. Photo / Paul Taylor

Christmas has certainly come early for David Shearer. Any political party suffering from the turmoil that Labour inflicted on itself last month would expect to be heavily punished rather than being rewarded in subsequent polls - as is the case with the latest television-commissioned voter surveys.

Labour's rise in the One News-Colmar Brunton poll by three percentage points to 35 per cent support and the smaller increase taking the party to the same level in the 3News Reid Research poll both defy political gravity.

One explanation is that an accompanying appreciable boost in Shearer's popularity may have had some positive spin-off for Labour's overall support.

Shearer's willingness to force a showdown with his would-be replacement David Cunliffe and then punish the MP by dumping him from his front bench had Shearer dealing effectively with the crisis surrounding his leadership by showing true leadership.

This exercise in profile-raising on Shearer's part was a one-off, however. You can only affect an "I'm in charge" response to disunity once or twice before you end up looking like you are obviously not in charge.

The reasons behind Labour's surge may actually have little to do with recent events within that party, however. They may have a lot more to do with the still very slow erosion of National's support flowing from a combination of 12 months of unrelenting mini-scandals, sideshows and distractions against the backdrop of a sagging economy and more and more job layoffs across the country.

National has worked on the basis that the day-to-day ebb and flow of politics matters less than getting things right in the major policy areas affecting ordinary people's lives - such as making New Zealand's workplaces more productive and more competitive, improving access to health services, lifting academic achievement and so forth.

However, other polls show that the gap between those who think New Zealand is on the right track and those who believe the country is heading in the wrong direction is slowly narrowing.

Along with John Key's slow slide in popularity, that trend is of more worry to National than minor shifts in Labour's support.

Labour would see it differently. First, Shearer can point to having halved the gap between Labour and National in less than 12 months in the job. Second, Shearer and his colleagues end an indifferent year with the polls showing a Labour-Greens coalition being now more than a distinct possibility following the 2014 election.

Labour has not enjoyed that kind of morale-booster since Helen Clark was leader. In the process, the two television polls have snuffed out any lingering thoughts Cunliffe might have entertained of mounting a leadership challenge in February.

- 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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