Politics: Who’s leading the next normal?

David Shearer’s first six months as Labour leader were not the bold, knock-em-down poll-ramping the traditional media measure. So they fed off rumour-mongering right-wing and left-of-Labour blogs to roast him.
They missed the point. Political leadership has many dimensions.
Supposedly charisma-free types can win office and stay there. Helen Clark climbed from two percent as preferred Prime Minister in 2006 to the longest term of office since 1972. She proved to be strong, which voters like (for time).
Charisma-loaded types can do three terms and leave not much more than the Cheshire cat did. That’s been National’s risk in John Key. He’s more the agreeable, attractive, unifying and plausible presenter than the decisive commander.
In politics, as in business, leadership can be from out front, from behind and even from below.
Public service specialist academic Bill Ryan sees the essence of the “Better Public Services” programme in working in new ways to maximise innovation. That requires leadership at all levels, often in group action. And it requires managers (and ministers) to listen, adapt and adopt ideas whatever their origin – including the front line – and ministers to back them.
Bill English is the standout minister of that sort in the Key cabinet.
English has traditional Southland charisma – that is, none. But he has backed innovative ideas emerging from parts of the public service on how to be more effective and do “more with less”. He backs major changes in fiscal and asset management. He picked up the welfare working group’s recommendation for an actuarial/investment-based approach to welfare reform.
That longer-term, strategic focus of English’s is the anchor in the government – sort of leadership from No 2. Coupled with No 1’s skill with public opinion, it provided formidable leadership in the 2008-11 term.
But is it transformational? Have they been leading the first post-baby-boom cabinet?
Actually, they are transitional. The combination of 1980s-90s merchant banker Key and rebalance-the-economy-by-2020 English (both 50) is the late-baby-boomer half of the bridge to Generation XY “new normal” policies. Those policies will be influenced by the very different post-2008-crisis global politics and economy, and the XY generations’ different social priorities.
Shearer is older in years than Key and English. But, politically, he’s younger and he’s open to his shadow-cabinet post-baby-boomer MPs’ revisionism, in policies and in how to re-energise, reorganise, re-image and reconnect party without any longer broad committed vote – project also involving younger party members outside Parliament.
That amounts to leadership from behind and below. It might cost win in 2014 – though if the younger MPs identify the next “new normal” and generate policies to fit, win is not impossible. Also, don’t underestimate the potential counter-charismatic appeal of decent, gutsy Shearer if he gets seen around enough.
The party that has made the most of leadership from below is the Greens. They say their policies have anticipated the “next normal” for 40 years. They offer transcendental leadership.
But 2011’s climb out of the 6-7 percent zone to 11 percent was more on Labour’s weakness and Russel Norman’s shift towards economic orthodoxy than voter rush to ecological politics – lubricated by Norman’s now consummate television style. Moreover, unless the Greens substantially lift their vote again they will be junior partner in any post-2014 government – and at times not easy to manage, both internally and by Labour.
Potentially in their way is different leadership: Winston Peter’s mopping up of disorientation, disillusion and anger with personal winsomeness and mystical picture of the nation as it was and could be again.
But is that real leadership? Is it form of leadership that is fitting us for the future? Set it in the context of firm and you get your answer.
There is another dimension of leadership: openness. National has led the way into super-managed, controversy-free conferences. Democracy once was otherwise. But democracy is very demanding of its leaders. M

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and NZ Management’s regular political columnist. [email protected]

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