OPINION: The headline-grabbing story from Labour's weekend conference should have been David Shearer's promise to help 100,000 families into cheap first homes. Instead, the focus before, during and after the three-day gathering was whether Mr Shearer will even be at the party's helm in three months' time.
Would-be leader David Cunliffe bears all the blame for questions about Mr Shearer's future overshadowing an otherwise successful conference for the incumbent and the party. Warned that his keynote speech was a do-or-die affair, Mr Shearer delivered a strong, confident showing that was laced with bread and butter Labour fare and lifted morale among the rank and file.
However, it was not his policy to help 100,000 families buy affordable first homes that led news reports, but Mr Cunliffe's repeated refusal to rule out a coup attempt in February, when Labour's leadership is automatically reviewed. Mr Cunliffe's chances got a huge boost from the party's decision to change the way leadership contests are sparked and decided. He now needs the support of just 13 of Labour's other 33 MPs to start a contest in which party activists and affiliated unions will command 60 per cent of the vote.
Mr Cunliffe could have immediately ended speculation about his intentions by firmly ruling out any challenge and committing to support Mr Shearer through to the next election. Faced with more than 10 weeks of damaging uncertainty, Mr Shearer's only option was to force the issue.
Having called Mr Cunliffe's bluff, Mr Shearer now needs an overwhelming vote of support from his caucus in the vote expected today. He must also discipline Mr Cunliffe to show he has the backbone required to not just lead a political party, but to be prime minister.
Even then, the spectre of a possible February coup will linger. It will be banished only by unequivocal public endorsement of his leadership by MPs known to be in Mr Cunliffe's camp.
Mr Shearer bears much of the responsibility for Labour's inability to gain ground as National has fended off crisis after scandal after botchup this year. Before Sunday, he had singularly failed to articulate how Labour under his leadership is any different from the party that was roundly rejected at last year's election, and his stumbling performances in the House and the media did not inspire voter confidence.
However, he is starting to sound more sure of himself and is beginning to stamp his mark on the party. It could simply be that he is one of those politicians the public needs time to get to know. Helen Clark was the same.
Labour's real problem is that it has failed to present itself as a credible government-in-waiting. That is partly due to the insistence among many grassroots members that it swing even further to the Left, instead of chasing the Centre voters who decide elections. As a result, Mr Shearer has been slow to jettison losing policies, such as last year's promise to extend Working for Families tax credits to beneficiaries.
As long as policies like that remain on the table, Labour will continue to alienate too many voters. Infighting and disunity does nothing to help its cause.
- © Fairfax NZ News