Unfortunately I don’t think the latest Roy Morgan is a rogue poll. But I also don’t think that it’s the result of David Shearer’s GCSB fiasco as the electorate doesn’t tend to make up its mind on single issues.
Rather, I think that the electorate has simply run out of patience with Labour. As has been pointed out time and time again, politics is about narratives – about finding a positive story about your own brand and a negative one about you opponent and punctuating these stories with example again and again and again. And yet Labour’s “top teams”, both under Goff and under Shearer, have repeated failed to grasp that very simple fact.
So in four years we’ve not seen any consistency either in how they have opposed the government or how they have promoted themselves. Instead we’ve seen four years of disparate silver bullet PR fiascos ranging from dying Phil Goff’s hair and sticking him on a motor bike, to ill-timed blairite triangulation attempts such as David Shearer’s bene on a roof speech, to desperate and self-defeating attacks such as the gcsb debacle and the backstabbing of their own colleagues and staff members.
And to make matters worse this absolute lack of strategy has been punctuated with own goals like Trevor Mallard’s ticket scalping, David Shearer setting the Auditor General on one of his own Senior MPs, Trevor Mallard’s offensive facebook postings, Shane Jone’s transparent lobbying for his donor, Trevor Mallard’s ill-judged bike race with the internet’s village idiot, various MPs’ twitter outbursts, Trevor Mallard’s obsession with David Farrar, various frontbenchers’ failure to attain profile, Trevor Mallard’s… well you get the idea. In short they’ve inadvertently allowed a narrative to form that they’re not a competent government in waiting at all.
But it’s not all bad news. There are many talented MPs in the caucus and the party itself is in good fettle. In fact members from around the country have a unity of political vision I’ve not seen for a long time (and political vision is the foundation good durable narratives are built on).
Labour simply needs to start focusing on getting the basics right. It needs to drop the idea that you can win the electorate’s heart with one-off stunts, and to drop the naive idea Winston will get them across the line (even if he does go with Labour over the Nats it’ll be a Faustian pact), and go back to its core values and use them to build solid stories of what they stand for. And what they stand against. Because Labour’s core values are New Zealand’s core values.
That said, I have real reservations this can be done. The three basic political planks of strategic vision, operational competence, and discipline all seem to be missing in action – we’ve got a strategy team that hasn’t fired for four years, a leader’s office that has been largely picked from the Wellington Central LEC and its members (which is not to say they haven’t done well for Robertson in that electorate but national campaigning is a totally different kettle of fish and Wellington Central is not an electorate that is particularly representative of the rest of the county – what works there is by no means guaranteed to work elsewhere), and we’re seeing a fundamental lack of discipline.
On that last point I think that one of the most concerning signs lately has been the fact Shane Jones was allowed to go on Q+A last week and create fisheries policy despite not being the spokesperson (or even a frontbencher). I’ve not seen anything like it since the days of Maurice Williamson doing the same thing under Bill English’s leadership and it bodes really badly because even the best strategy in the world coupled with the most talented operational people is worth nothing if any MP with a personal hobby-horse (and most of them have one) is able to randomly steer the narrative off course.
It’s going to be hard but Labour needs to get its house in order. There’s too much to lose if it doesn’t.