The vexed issue of David Shearer's leadership is up for discussion again, because it seems some people are never satisfied. Even when 8% has been added to the Labour vote, solid policy is starting to be announced and a Labour-Green coalition is looking like a workable government, some can't help but believe the Sky Is Falling because Shearer's personal numbers are bad.
But I don't think it matters.
At the moment, for 90% of the population, David Shearer is a nonentity. They can’t think of much good about him so he he must, therefore, be doing a bad job. Truth is, they can’t think of much to say about him because there is very rarely ever anything to say about the Leader of the Opposition, unless it is negative. It’s like being Vice President in the US, which someone compared to having to drink a glass of vomit. By definition, you’re unimportant and dismissed, until a month or two before an election when the apathetic majority give themselves a shake and think, “Who the Hell are we going to get to run this place now?” Then, and only then, is it likely Shearer’s numbers will move.
Looking at Britain, Ed Milliband is in a similar to position to Shearer in terms of voters perception of him as a credible alternative PM. The British electorate don’t know much about him, and obscurity equates to uselessness as far as voters are concerned.
Milliband does enjoy the odd position of being the least disliked of the three main party leaders. But that's because of the specifics of the British situation; Milliband’s ratings are better than the coalition leaders because they are more hated than things that are hated. So comparisons between the two have to be made carefully. Milliband isn't made popular because his opponents are even more unpopular. He's ignored because he hasn't done anything much, and his opponents are loathed for what they have done.
Shearer is in a less pleasant position - he's ignored because he's the leader of the opposition and Key is still quite liked by a lot of people. they can't do much about it now; but if they can’t boost their numbers when the election is imminent, then there is a problem. Pointing to Shearer's ratings and squeaking is a waste of energy.
Nick Clegg was in a similar position prior to the 2010 election – his approval and disapproval ratings were pretty much even until about a year out from the election, when he began to get positive coverage due to the Expenses Scandal and the Financial Crisis blah blah blah – then one went up, the other went down. He didn’t suddenly become competent, of course: people just started noticing him and thought, “That’s what we like in politicians: not Scottish and not a Tory.” After his performance in the leader’s debates, he became even more wildly popular, teenage girls were swooning and the matrons of Olde Englande were surreptitiously mailing him their underwear. Then he got into a coalition with the Tories, and now he’s hated again …
Milliband’s critics have generally complained about him being too leftwing for the British electorate. Witness the current fuss about the commitment to exceed Tory spending pledges to stimulate the economy. Or the description of him in the rightwing press as Red Ed, the puppet of the unions? As I said, George Galloway and his ilk might make noises off to the left (though Galloway is really a self promoting rabble rouser, more akin to Winston Peters) but they are an electoral irrelevance.
So, as I said, it is silly to try to read anything into Shearer’s personal ratings at this point. Opposition leaders are almost always held in faint regard. After all, painting them as great often forces the electorate to confront the uncomfortable question of why the voted them out in the first place. My assessment is that Shearer may only start firing on all cylinders in the lead up to the election, it is based on his performance to date – generally erratic and stuttering until the moment of (often self caused) crisis.
I might be wrong, of course.