Editorial: Shearer failing to set Labour agenda

Last updated 05:00 25/04/2012

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OPINION: Labour leader David Shearer is surprised National's woeful start to the year has not translated into a jump in support for his party.

He should not be. Labour will not win back the voters that have deserted it in droves till Mr Shearer starts presenting it as a credible government-in-waiting.

He has singularly failed to do that in the more than four months he has been leader. He has yet to advance a coherent vision for New Zealand, let alone policies on how that vision might be achieved. The two "positioning" speeches he has so far delivered have been laced with feel-good platitudes, but have not spelled out how the Labour Party he leads is materially different from the one overwhelmingly rejected by voters at last year's election. Until he does so, the old adage about voters preferring the devil they know to the one they don't will continue to apply.

Mr Shearer's reaction to the latest polls, which show Labour flatlining at below 30 per cent while National continues to push the 50 per cent mark, was telling. It was, he said, "sort of surprising" given the controversies that have dogged the Government this year. But Mr Shearer must do more than simply wait in the hope that centre voters, the ones who decide elections, will grow dissatisfied with National and come flooding back to Labour. The fact that National has retained a 20-point lead despite the forced resignation of ACC Minister Nick Smith, allegations of cronyism surrounding the SkyCity conference centre deal and opposition to the sale of the Crafar farms to Chinese buyers bears testament to that.

Mr Shearer should look to the Greens to see the value that comes from a political party determining what it stands for and developing policies in line with its beliefs. They have a clear line on just about every issue, allowing their MPs to operate with confidence and certainty. Aided by an influx of promising MPs, they are filling the void left by Labour and, as a result, have consolidated the record support they attracted at the last election.

Labour, by contrast, has left voters guessing. On the one hand, Mr Shearer says he wants a strong, modern economy in which everyone who is able to pulls their weight, including those dependent on the state; on the other, he is yet to say whether he still thinks Working For Families "in work" tax credits should be paid to beneficiaries, funded from the taxes of struggling workers who in many cases do not qualify for it themselves.

The official line is that Mr Shearer, a relative newcomer, needs more time to introduce himself to the wider party membership and take public soundings on where Labour went wrong in 2011 before he can start steering his own course. He also professes himself to be relaxed about his slow start, claiming voters only really start paying attention to politics in election years, meaning there is still plenty of time for him to set out his stall.

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He is right about one thing. The race for the 2014 election is a marathon, not a 100-metre sprint. The problem is that the other contenders have already left the starting line and are disappearing into the distance, while he is still in the changing sheds tying his laces.

- The Dominion Post

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