In politics, bad times for the other side can easily breed complacency about how your own team is faring.
In recent months, Labour's parliamentary caucus has grown accustomed to thinking the second term blues had set in for the Key government while - simultaneously - the public was getting better acquainted with Labour leader David Shearer, and was gradually warming to him. Surely by 2014, the two trend lines would deliver an election victory for the centre-left.
It may still happen. Yet last week, Labour's imagined procession to victory hit its first major pothole when the polls showed the public's disenchantment with the government had gone into reverse, while support for Shearer as an alternative PM had slightly declined. This could have been ignored as 'margin of error' stuff but for the escalation that followed.
With exquisite bad timing, 'two senior [Labour] MPs' allegedly told political blogger Duncan Garner just why the Labour caucus 'hated' Labour MP David Cunliffe, Shearer's only credible rival for the leadership. In a speech to Grey Power, Shearer then tried in hamfisted fashion to forge a connection with heartland New Zealand by relating an anecdote about how someone in his electorate was seen painting the roof on their house, while on a sickness benefit. That wasn't fair, Shearer said, adding that he had no time for people who didn't pull their weight.
It was a curious way for Shearer to spotlight the issue of fairness in society, just as unemployment hit fresh highs. Labour will never be able to outdo National when it comes to getting tough on welfare recipients, and Shearer's apparent decision to endorse taking a hardline on welfare will have won him few converts on the centre-right, even as it undermined his image of being a Mr Nice Guy, one far removed from the dirty business of political dog whistling.
Shearer has since taken a drubbing on the blogosphere for signalling to conservative voters in this fashion. Perhaps his message should not have come as such a surprise. Labour has always drawn a policy distinction between the working poor and the beneficiary poor and significantly - under the Helen Clark administration - the Working for Families package offered no assistance to beneficiaries. Even so, Shearer's readiness to pile in on those receiving sickness benefits will have done little to endear him to the party activists that Labour will need to mobilise its vote in Election 2014.
That's the trade-off. Clearly, the opinion polls must be telling Labour that welfare reform is a relatively popular policy among the wider public. Still, Shearer's timid signal that he is not averse to cracking down on welfare bludgers has been taken in Labour circles as an implicit slur against everyone currently getting a sickness benefit, and the anecdote has been greeted with dismay by party idealists.
Ironically, it was David Cunliffe who recently argued that one reason Labour fared so poorly at the last election was that its policies were seen as being little different from those of the government. On welfare reform, that is (again) shaping to be the case. It will be interesting to see whether Shearer continues in the same punitive vein, or changes tack on welfare policy in order to try and repair the damage within his own ranks.
- Kapiti Observer