OPINION: David Shearer thinks he is safe till the next election because his caucus has confirmed him as leader. It doesn't necessarily follow. Mr Shearer is, in fact, on probation till the polls show a big lift for his party. If the polls don't lift, the caucus could still panic and throw him out.
Mr Shearer has not yet convinced the voters that he is a plausible prime minister, even if his caucus has backed him. He is desperately inarticulate, unable to deliver a sound bite without a lot of rehearsal or an auto-cue. He can manage a good speech when his political life depends on it, as he did at last year's party conference.
He can look tough and decisive when his back is to the wall, but mostly he still just blunders.
Trevor Mallard likens Mr Shearer to Norman Kirk, which is laughable. By 1972, Mr Kirk had become a poised and appealing politician. Unlike Mr Shearer, he was quick-witted and articulate, and thrived on hecklers. Those were the days when politicians still had public meetings and had to face their tormentors. He also had charisma, a clear message of social justice and a refreshing independence in international policy.
Mr Shearer has none of these and, to be fair, it took Mr Kirk several years and two election defeats to acquire them. Parties are no longer so patient.
If Mr Shearer has not made a big difference by the end of the year, hard questions will have to be faced. The balance between the Left and Right blocs in parliament, after all, is still narrow. A few percentage points in the polls would decide the election, and backing a mumbler and stumbler like Mr Shearer might look too big a risk.
The problem, of course, is that there is no obvious replacement, so the question is whether Mr Shearer can turn Labour into a plausible government even when doubts remain about him as leader. His big promises on housing have certainly helped Labour's standing but serious questions have arisen about whether Labour could really build so many houses at the promised price. Many voters clearly think that the housing affordability problem needs bold action from the Government, but they also know that the Government is short of money.
Labour doesn't have the luxury, as NZ First and arguably the Greens still do, of being niche parties that can make reckless promises. Labour has the burden of being taken seriously. Its policies matter because one day they might be implemented.
John Key's National-led Government looks increasingly stuck in a rut, with few new ideas and big problems facing its old ones. Its sell-down of state assets is under a judicial cloud and is vastly unpopular. It builds a lot of roads and is hell-bent on cutting business costs, but unemployment is still alarmingly high.
In a sense, Mr Key faces as serious a test this year as Mr Shearer does. He has to prove his Government can really make a difference.
Labour is exploring new ideas- on monetary policy and tax and on a tougher welfare policy - but its image remains blurred. Mr Shearer has a long way to go before he and his party look like winners.
- The Dominion Post