Congratulations David Shearer, you’re leader of the Left now, and the prime target for the Right’s smear machine. The Right’s strategy is obvious: bait and switch. Having proclaimed Shearer’s virtues to high heaven, they (and their useful idiots) will now say ‘who is this man?’, try to frame unreasonable expectations, and try to beat up leadership rumours.
They’ve wasted no time in starting. In fact, it started a few days ago, once they were confident that Shearer had the numbers.
Labour’s counter-strategy has to be to fill the narrative around Shearer before the Right does. This is already underway, too, and the primary process helped. It also helps that Shearer’s CV provides such a ready-made positive story (much easier than Key’s actually). But the Nats are much better at smearing their opponents (at least their external opponents) than Labour is. They do it so well, you almost don’t see it because the smears become the narrative.
So, Labour cannot rest on its laurels here. Shearer needs to be in front of the media, speaking about his values, about his commitment to change, about sharing the values and aspirations of Kiwis. He mustn’t get tied down into specific policy positions until he and the party are ready – although the narrative that Labour ran on, of the need for long-term changes for a fairer New Zealand, not short-term firesales should remain. Just dismiss invitations to get bogged down with a clear statement that policies will be announced in due course.
And don’t, for god’s sake, fall into a default position of putting out whinging press releases about everything the government does. Already, most of the minor spokespeople seem to have picked up after the election with the same incessant little meaningless press releases. Make them stop. Get some media people who understand strategy, not just how to whine. Pick your battles and, when you do oppose, do it robustly. This is part of narrative. A huge part because the press releases that journalists read every day from political parties tell them a lot about the parties’ mindsets.
The first question time of the year will be important and is worth investing time in getting right. It needs to be about holding Key up to higher standards – not some weak gotcha quotes or trying to hold Key against his own statements (which he will always weasel out of) but against standards that Labour sets. This is about regaining the broader political narrative, rather than being confined to the rules National sets. Shearer doesn’t need to blow Key out of the park. He isn’t expected to in his first face to face. Just do a decent job.
The Right and the more yapping dog type of journalist will raise the question of whether Robertson intends to roll Shearer whenever anything goes mildly wrong – including if there isn’t an immediate leap in the polls. It’s stupid stuff. The only real response is for the caucus to stay united and not mutter to journalists (why would you mutter to a journalist anyway). Robertson should probably give Michael Cullen a call and find out how he got the media to accept he was a loyal deputy (despite having launched several failed coups on Helen Clark). Cullen’s famous “I’m a number two sort of person” is probably a good place to start.
I’m probably telling the people behind Shearer like Trevor Mallard how to suck eggs but this is important. The first few weeks will shape the narrative around Shearer. Don’t let them slip by and leave the Right free rein to tell New Zealand who Shearer is. The primary competition was an excellent start in giving Labour the opportunity to build him up. Now, complete the job.