Labour Party's leadership woes

Last updated 09:20 20/11/2012
David Cunliffe
CONTENDERS: Labour Party leader David Shearer may face a challenge from David Cunliffe in February.

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The Labour Party has always quietly believed it has a virtual monopoly on political virtue, and that faith has motivated its legendary grassroots organisation for decades.

OPINION: Unfortunately, the same superiority complex has also encouraged Labour to believe that if the New Zealand public is not flocking to its banner, somebody else must be to blame.

It is the media's fault.

Or it is due to the guile of the Tories, or to big business pulling the wool over the workers' eyes and preventing them from getting the message.

Of late, the Labour Party has also been inclined to blame the messenger - namely its leader, David Shearer.

Thanks to the same tribal tendency, Shearer and his lieutenants now appear to be blaming all their current problems on their fellow MP, David Cunliffe.

At last weekend's party conference, Labour adopted a new formula for triggering a leadership challenge.

If such a vote was held in February with significant input from beyond the parliamentary caucus, it would almost certainly result in Shearer being replaced by Cunliffe.

In line with the old maxim that nothing focuses the mind quite like the prospect of imminent execution, Shearer's supporters immediately floated plans to bring forward the vote.

Unfortunately, an early vote under the old rules risked looking like self-interest on Shearer's part - and would hardly be in the spirit of democratisation that the conference has just endorsed.

Team Shearer, however, would prefer a premature burial for Cunliffe, partly to avoid allowing the leadership question to fester over summer.

It may do so, regardless.

One can feel sympathy for Shearer's predicament. He was elected leader less than a year ago.

Whatever his leadership flaws, Labour has closed the gap on National by 10 percentage points, and the opposition grouping of Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First is now consistently leading the governing coalition in the polls.

True, John Key remains the country's most popular politician and its most skilled communicator, which should make Shearer's inroads as Leader of the Opposition seem all the more noteworthy.

Moreover, despite the impatience among activists and commentators about Shearer's tentative style, his personal poll ratings are still streets ahead of what Helen Clark was achieving at a similar point as leader.

All these rational arguments have been eclipsed by the conflict with Cunliffe who - like it or not - is able to articulate Labour's positions clearly and forcefully in a way that Shearer usually struggles to match.

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Labour's front bench can ill afford to lose Cunliffe.

Shearer and his team have struggled all year to get traction on the government, especially in comparison to the Greens.

Perversely, Labour MP Shane Jones has been allowed by Shearer to repeatedly attack the coalition partner that Labour needs to govern.

Given these problems, it could be argued that shuffling the leadership deck would provide only a cosmetic fix.

Of late, Labour has been led by someone who cannot manage either his best talent or the rogue elements in his caucus, while the alternative option as leader seems to be deeply resented by many senior Labour MPs.

Too bad for the party faithful. Evidently, they will need to wait longer for a leadership that's able to get really tough on John Key, rather than on its own dissatisfied elements.

- Upper Hutt Leader

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