Not The West Wing

The on-going ructions in the New Zealand Labour party really are a bit sad. David Shearer was appointed leader by the caucus late last year, following a closely contested but nevertheless collegial leadership discussion. He was not my pick for leader, but once he was appointed, it seems only fair to give him a chance.

Five months later, and the rumbles are starting. It’s fair to say that he hasn’t had a big impact on the polls, and articles are beginning to appear in the national press suggesting that his time may be up: Claire Trevett in the NZ Herald once, and twice, an editorial in the Dom Post, Chris Trotter in his syndicated column.

And there has been a string of departures in Shearer’s office. His Chief of Staff, Stuart Nash left a few days ago (detailed in various newspaper articles), but just today, via DPF, a rumour that two more senior people have left, or might leave, or might not leave now that Stuart Nash has left. One of those staffers is John Pagani, who is widely credited, or discredited, with being the person who (mis)guided Phil Goff towards last year’s election defeat for Labour.

It all speaks of turmoil and change and settling in. But what worries to me most of all is this sentence from Chris Trotter’s column.

Oh, that Labour possessed speechwriters like The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler and Sam Seaborne.

FFS! They are FICTIONAL characters, written to express script writers’ fantasies about politics. You can tell that they are fictional characters because the script writers helped themselves to nice little touches like claiming that they had a collective IQ of over 300. Wet dream material, really. And all that on top of their fantasy President.

Not only was The West Wing fictional, it was set in a different country, where the political system and the political context (wait for this… it’s an important point) is DIFFERENT. What works in American script writers’ imaginings simply will not translate to the reality of New Zealand, and New Zealand politics.

Here’s the real worry. To what extent are staffers in the Labour party leader’s office indulging in playing out their own little political fantasies in which the right word or the right phrase will suddenly spark a wholesale surge in support for Labour? How much are they sitting there, patting themselves on the back and telling themselves that they too could be President of the United States?

I think Shearer is on notice, as he has been from the day that he was appointed as leader by the Labour party caucus. As any other person appointed to the leadership would have been too. I also think that a lot of the gossip in recent days is just Thorndon bubble stuff (this would be equivalent to the Beltway in West Wing terms). Shearer still has time, and he ought to still have time, to establish himself. Perhaps until the end of the year? And he will have a good chance of becoming an effective leader of the Labour party if his staff stop playing silly games, and start working hard on redeveloping the Labour party, from the ground up, instead of playing silly psephological games with each other and themselves.


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