A win for Shearer. But much work still to do

It was a clear win to David Shearer, his first against John Key. Shearer instantly sensed parents’ likely reaction to notes from teachers about Hekia Parata’s brilliant scheme to raise class sizes to pay for more teacher training and a pay-for-performance system. He ran it top of his budget speech.

On Thursday Parata scrapped her scheme. Key said from Europe (his polls no doubt saying what by then Labour’s were) that it was her decision.

Keep the boss clear of the mud, the tacticians say. Helen Clark was skilled at that. But it stretches plausibility rather tight that Parata could be still promoting her policy on radio one day and the next suddenly pushing senior ministers — one a former woodwork teacher, another a tough-it-out tactician — into scrapping it.

Why downgrade class sizes? Professor John Hattie, inventor of a method for teachers to test their effectiveness, told a Treasury semi-public lecture a few years back that class sizes are far less effective than other factors in lifting learning. Professor Dugald Scott backed that last week.

But parents, especially National-leaning parents, get skittish about their kids’ education. To get parents onside would have required long, research-rich and well-led public debate — of the sort preceding the 2010 tax changes and now starting to be prepared for a rise in the pension age. The only class size “debate” was a speech by Gabs Makhlouf, Secretary to the Treasury, not an agency parents would instinctively turn to for guidance on kids’ education.

Makhlouf’s minister should have twigged how parents would react. As education shadow minister, Bill English made hay out of Trevor Mallard’s amalgamation of small schools, also aimed at improving learning. Clark squashed that fast when she saw how parents reacted.

Three points arise from the Parata gambit.

One is that, while the government will recover as this gaffe fades from the news, it will have lost a sliver of trust. This bit of political mismanagement, coming on top of several this year, could generate a downward momentum out of the recent small slippage in National’s poll readings. And reversing momentum is a lot harder than forestalling it, especially if background factors — consumer confidence and right-track-wrong-track readings particularly — are also sliding, as they are right now.

The second point is that there is a public interest in good political management: stable policy. Poor political management leads either to backoffs — remember the retreat from Gerry Brownlee’s plan to dig up national parks in 2010 — or to policy ping-pong as the next change of government reverses a policy for which there is not a solid voter majority.

Thus, National heavily softened Labour’s emissions trading scheme and the next Labour-led government will likely toughen it again. National is reversing a swag of Clark-government workplace laws, which will in turn be reversed. The jury is out on SOE selldowns: if the sky doesn’t fall in after the first one or two, public opposition will likely melt but the politics need managing much better than up till now. Unstable policy is bad for investment and bad for voter trust in the system.

The third point about the Parata gambit is that Labour’s morale is up a notch and Shearer has taken one more step towards filling out as a party leader in a form recognisable to the public. Even if most voters won’t have noticed, it is his first decisive win over Key.

The risk for Labour as its morale builds is to think it might sneak into office without changing too much.

That risk is not so much that voters might sniff out a coaster and deny Labour in 2014 nor that it leaves out the Green part of the governing equation that needs to be sorted well before election day. It is that the resultant government might be short-lived.

That puts the heat on Davids Cunliffe and Parker, Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern.

The two Davids’ job is to cherry-pick the now fast-evolving international economic policy thinking to fit a Labour agenda. Cunliffe, who has the pivotal economic development portfolio, was to emphasise investment in human and physical capital in a speech yesterday after this went to press. Shearer wants a “new economy”, research-based.

Robertson’s role is to freshen environment and education thinking, oversee a general reapplication of Labour principles to modern conditions — decades overdue and a Shearer ambition — and lead the deal-making with the Greens. Robertson has yet to generate much of that but these are early days.

Generation-Y Ardern’s role is to recast social assistance policy. She has been pushing the child-centred policy which Labour curiously neglected in the election and has been gathering a group to rethink “welfare”, which she is calling “social security”, thereby reviving the original 1930s notion of reciprocity.

Few outside a small circle will quickly notice much of that. But it is every bit as important as Shearer’s win over Key on class sizes.