Labour has learnt — or should have learnt — that a new leader is not an automatic transit pass to the political uplands. But some leaders are uplands inhabitants whether or not their party is. How come?
Labour’s poll average was 32.5 per cent when David Shearer resigned. It peaked at 36.4 per cent after the leadership contest. It slid to 25.1 per cent in the election.
The year-long polls average in 2013 for Labour-plus-Greens combined was 0.5 per cent above National. Then in January David Cunliffe fluffed his centrepiece children policy in his first big speech. National took over the lead, averaging 8.6 per cent through the year and peaking at 13.2 per cent in late August.
Labour’s woes are not due solely to Cunliffe who at his best can be impressive and even persuasive and was a smart, highly capable minister.
But good line managers don’t always make good general managers. Cunliffe fluffed other policy lines in the campaign, right up to when John Key nailed him on capital gains on family house trusts — a three-year-old policy he should have known down to the last comma.
He alternated between preachy speeches, which sometimes hit the mark with an audience but sometimes missed, and saying what he thought people wanted to hear.
Many Labour-leaning people said to me they doubted him, or worse, and voted for anyone-but-Labour. To middle New Zealand the government looked solid, even if a bit stolid, and by mid-2014 the alternative looked messy because it needed a cagey Peters.
But, to be fair to Cunliffe, other powerful forces swamped him which would also have swamped Shearer and his 2013 opponents, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones.
One force was a freak year for dairy products which, coupled with the Canterbury rebuild, drove up consumer confidence. No opposition (or government) leader can control such events.
The second force was one even Helen Clark couldn’t outgun in 2008: National’s “macro-personality”.
Through much of the twentieth century politics was a contest of mass-membership parties based on social blocks. Left commentators talked of a “social cleavage” between, on the one hand, bosses, businesspeople, managers and professionals and their dependants, represented by National, and, on the other, wage and salary workers and “good works” people and their dependants, represented by Labour.
It never was a rigid dividing line. Many on both sides voted with the other side. Nevertheless, in the 1950s the great majority voted the same way election after election. That loyalty passed from generation to generation.
But from the 1970s the “social cleavage” blurred and loyalties blurred, too. In the 1990s, after radical economic reforms by both major parties, the loyalty rate dropped to a fraction of its 1950s level.
Add in television from the 1960s and alternative digital media from the 1990s. Loyalty — or hate — now goes as much to the leader as to the party.
When the leader is a macro-personality, as John Key is, the leader is — or at least is the persona of — the party. National’s #teamkey hashtag celebrated that.
Key’s macro-personality ingredients are a mixture of apparent decency, convincing-sounding reassurance and appearance of knowing what is what — plus a down-to-earth, easy mixing, highly approachable one-of-us-ness, captured in the photograph of him and Bronagh on the New Zealand Herald front page strolling down for coffee the day after the election, a comfortable couple.
There are downsides. While he scorecards his ministers and eases out underperformers, giving him space to refresh his caucus and, as he did yesterday, his cabinet and while he often makes the decisions in cabinet committees, he leaves ministers (Judith Collins) and others (Jason Ede) too much latitude to go awry.
He is a larrikin in Parliament. He bends the rules of democratic due process. Both are at odds with a well-functioning democracy.
Some people dislike him as shifty and shallow — his speeches are often off-hand and insubstantial — and that dislike is intense among some, including some conservatives.
But most people warm to, and feel safe with, him. Hence the campaign crush for “selfies” with him. If they notice the failings, they overlook or ignore them. That’s the way with macro-personalities.
The nearest to a Labour macro-personality was probably Michael Joseph Savage. But that was in party block-voting times, long before the digital media age.
None of Labour’s current contestants is a Savage or a Key.
Down the caucus ranks there are two still-too-young possibles. Outside Parliament there is someone with most of the ingredients — attractive, easy-mixing, articulate, clear about principles and a skilled campaigner — but for now getting corporate experience and making a family.
But that is for the future. In any case Labour’s greater need is a post-earthquake root-and-branch rebuild. A macro-personality might have masked that duty.
Meantime, Key remakes his ministry and cruises into a third term.