Does David Shearer want to be Tony Blair?

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 08:21 09/02/2012

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Vernon Small

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OPINION: Have you heard the one about Tony Blair?

In the seemingly bottomless hoard of anecdotes Labour leader David Shearer has about his years as an aid worker, the three-hour drive around Jerusalem with the former British prime minister is one of the best.

It might be going a bit far, but is Mr Shearer taking more from the encounter than a handy after-dinner name-drop?

Is he aiming to be the Blair of the South Pacific?

Is he in fact modelling himself - or more precisely his programme of reform - on Britain's architect of New Labour?

His cautious - even bland - start to his tenure says a loud "no" compared to Cyclone Blair who blew through UK Labour.

His front-bench reshuffle was bold enough, but there has been precious little policy unveiled so far and his start to 2012 has been almost inaudible.

Pictures of him surfing and shearing in a black shirt served the purpose. But then there was his "let's all say happy Waitangi Day and avoid politics" approach to February 6 - even on the traditionally very political February 5 - and there he was atop the fence over the contentious Maori water claim.

But his Christmas non-fiction reading included Mr Blair's biography and the writings of Philip Gould, Baron Gould of Brookwood if you please, who died late last year.

Gould's 1998 book The Unfinished Revolution - how the modernisers saved the Labour Party was the strategy bible penned by the man who was a key adviser and pollster to UK Labour in the general elections of 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Mr Shearer himself does not shy away from the parallels.

He freely admits he is not ideological Labour. Like Mr Blair he is keen to set aside the road blocks to a return to power. His guiding mantra "whatever works" flatters John Key with imitation.

Welcome to the battle of the pragmatists.

Mr Shearer's approach will be anything but bull-at-a-gate.

And it makes sense for him to play the steady guy to the mercurial Winston Peters and the occasionally clownish John Key.

A review of the party should deliver changes in list selection and the role and influence of the unions in due course.

In the meantime he is introducing himself to the rank and file members, who barely know him, and preparing to move the policy debate along, starting with a better-late-than-never state of the nation speech at the end of the month or in early March.

It will probably be a broad brush speech, though there will be some policy casualties, principally among the party's spending and tax cut policies from 2011.

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His leadership team have analysed the results, and found that while some ideas were tactically positive; GST off fresh fruit and vegetables, the extension of working for families tax credits and the $5000 tax free band spring to mind; they did not gel with Labour's overall message that they would be prudent fiscal and economic managers.

How else could Labour have left office with negligible debt, and lost financial credibility so utterly? How is it that after piling up a debt mountain and running record deficits, it is National and John Key that have come out smelling of fiscal roses?

The short answer is that debt was an underlying angst for voters last year, and Labour failed to convince them it had the solutions.

With Treasury warning of growing risks to the economy - and hence the $10b-plus deficit - from the European crisis, Labour is wary.

Even redressing the balance, circa November 2011, will likely not be enough for Labour.

It has to take into account an even tighter fiscal track and slower growth than in the pre-election picture - and an even more cautious electorate as this term rumbles on.

And it is aware how it was left high and dry under Phil Goff after he ripped into new policy such as GST cuts and tax reforms, only to be left stranded by the outgoing revenue tide.

So far Labour's attacks in the House have focused firmly on asset sales and the problems Mr Key is having with the Maori Party.

But attacks - and it has to be said they have been pretty feeble - can only go so far.

Mr Shearer is hoping to set himself up as the positive alternative; "the clean, green clever economy" was his touchstone before Christmas; and that requires new ideas, not the blandness he has deployed so far.

Mr Shearer's likeability is obvious and all new leaders can expect to have a honeymoon with voters. But Mr Shearer is in danger of wasting his.

It would be good to see just one stake in the ground.

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