The speculation is rising

John Armstrong: Thinking the unthinkable – 26 Feb 2008 – Opinion, Editorial and reader comments from New Zealand and around the World – nzherald

Speculation is now open and loud that Clark is up for a challenge, even more ominous is Phil Goff’s denials that he is trying to roll her. Rumours also abound about what Shane Jones is up to.

John Armstrong at least is thinking the unthinkable.

Life without Helen Clark? Labour’s abysmal showing in Saturday’s Fairfax Media-Nielsen poll will have the party’s MPs inevitably thinking the unthinkable – but only briefly.

That in itself is still something of a watershed. It has been nearly 12 years since Clark’s leadership of Labour last came under question. But it is still a long way off being under serious question. And merely thinking the unthinkable is a long way short of doing the unthinkable.

No one is yet putting the words “Clark” and “leadership challenge” in the same sentence despite a horrid week for the governing party followed by a horrible poll. Combined with the accompanying “Poll-axed” headline, it all added up to a massive kick in the guts for Labour morale.

Labour’s big fear is that should the leadership genie get well and truly out of the bottle, it will be impossible to stuff it back in.

It would be a disaster for Labour if Clark’s leadership, which has been seen as an electoral strength, suddenly became a weakness through continued speculation on possible coups and challenges.

I have said this previously that when the public switched off Clark the caucus would change their thinking from “Can’t lose with Helen” to “Can’t win with Helen”. When the polls are as bad as they are the whispers become general conversation and then the war is on.

Clark though thinks her popularity is affected because the party is down in the polls. I think she is wrong. Her popularity is affected because people are over her, and as a consequence they are well over Labour as well. The fact that Clark believes her popularity is the result of poor party performance is ample evidence that she has succumbed to the Culture of Personality herself. When a pary is based upon the Cult of Personality and focuses everything positive around the Cult Leader then when things start going wrong because of endless supplication before the exalted one the habit is to place the responsibility at their feet. Thus the cult of personality that Clark has developed is in fact the trojan horse that is bringing the party to its knees.

The short-term worry for Labour is that the latest polls seemingly indicate that Labour’s strategy of rolling out bold, fresh policy initiatives to demonstrate the Government is not tired and worn out does not seem to be working – at least not yet.

Clark has made herself the figurehead of that strategy. She has nailed her colours to the mast.

She believes she can beat John Key on the crucial question of leadership because she has the experience and substance he lacks.

Currently, though, Key is winning on leadership because voters are focusing on other attributes which Key does possess and which they like. He is competent, personable, conservative yet moderate in his conservatism, and he is something fresh and without political baggage.

If Clark’s strategy does not start working, then her leadership will come under more serious scrutiny.

The parallels to Muldoon are clear and obvious to anyone with any modicum of historical knowledge. Clark and Goff should know they are old enough to have fought against Muldoon, and there in lies Labour’s problem, Goff really isn’t a new face and Shane Jones is.

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