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Does Labour have a hobbit as leader?

By Susan Guthrie and Geoff Simmons 

Bilbo Baggins and David Shearer have a lot in common, not least the preference for a quiet life. “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” But a comfortable life is a lesser thing, as Bilbo Baggins came to realise, and David Shearer will too if gets his act together. Bilbo fainted at the initial thought of embarking on an adventure, Shearer too is probably less enamoured of politics this week than at any time in the past year. But, hey, there’s work to be done.

It’s not as if the challenges facing New Zealand are lesser than the onslaught of trolls, goblins, wolves and spiders that beset Bilbo and his gang. For vile gold-hoarding dragons substitute the ‘wealthy won’t-shares’ in New Zealand who steadfastly baulk at paying tax – surely the first target for a credible Opposition? The question is whether Shearer has the guts to do what Bilbo did and start his Unexpected Journey, or if he will do what other hobbits did and leave it to the Elves (the Greens) to sort out the mess.

Bilbo too had the misfortune to be accompanied by a would-be leader, with high ambitions and a penchant for failure. If the plot line of the Hobbit doesn’t convince you of David Cunliffe’s likeness to the Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield his recent flowering of facial hair might. Fortunately for David Shearer, Cunliffe appears to have less support than Thorin, his Labour Caucus supporters not appearing yet to number 13 foot soldiers.

At one point on his journey, Bilbo faces a crisis of confidence. “Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” Labour too is at a crossroads. It is hobbled by its legacy as the party which introduced free-market policies to New Zealand, not least because some of the Party have yet to accept they took it to unacceptable excess. Labour has yet, despite nearly two terms in Opposition, to work out what value it offers New Zealand. Go back, offering what they did a decade ago? Go sideways, offering the same as National only with a different front face? Or offer something meaningful which is fresh and new?

What needs to be done is clear. Protect the environment and redistribute wealth and income better for a start. That won’t win friends for Shearer and Labour among the polluting farmers and the wealthy won’t-shares. But it’s time these groups were sorted. They’ve won for a very long time, and now it’s the rest of Middle Earth’s – yes, read New Zealand’s – turn. New Zealanders need a real policy choice at the 2014 election and right now they don’t have it. Hopefully Shearer can channel his inner Bilbo and take a step outside Hobbiton. So far Labour’s policies resemble putting a timid toe outside Bag End rather than embarking on a bold adventure – Labour’s weak Capital Gains Tax is a good example. Do we need a Gandalf to help prod him on his way- Aunty Helen maybe – or is this one adventure Bilbo can do by himself?

Article by By Susan Guthrie and Geoff Simmons