Shearer: The invisible leader

When we asked 1000 people recently about David Shearer, many agreed he had one striking attribute in his favour. He was not Phil Goff.

It falls some way short of a resounding endorsement. But at least it shows people have an open mind. To borrow an old cliche, it means the phone is back on the hook and they are willing to pick up next time Labour calls.

Mr Shearer may not have blown that advantage yet, but there is a looming 'use by' date on it. And it seems like he has spent an inordinately long time patting his pockets looking for the number, wondering what to say.

Working on the theory that something will always fill the void, it is hardly surprising then that gay marriage and lacklustre polls have thrust some of the internal bickering in Labour to the surface.

When Mangere MP Su'a William Sio, a Mormon who represents the morally conservative face of Labour's Pacific constituency, publicly spoke out against gay marriage, it was no surprise.

He is one of a small number of Labour MPs - West Coast MP Damien O'Connor among them - who have signalled their opposition to backbencher Louisa Wall's marriage equality push.

Mr Sio took his opposition further; he warned that it could cost Labour the next election, and is calling on Ms Wall to withdraw it from the ballot.

In doing so, he reminded everyone that one of the things people least liked about Labour before it was voted out was its 'social engineering' bent, after a decade of reform like civil unions, legalised prostitution, and the smacking law, which Labour lost votes over despite it being a Green measure.

That reformist bent became one of the more serious sources of friction within the Labour caucus during Helen Clark's final three years. A minority faction - ironically the group Mr Shearer was aligned with - had become increasingly antsy that it was making Labour look out of touch and out of step with middle New Zealand.

Mr O'Connor's famous refusal to seek a place on Labour's list, which he described as being decided by 'self- serving unionists and a gaggle of gays', was the outward expression of that frustration.

Mr Sio's outburst brought that back to the surface. Coming on top of rumours of fresh division over the leadership ambitions of frontbench MP David Cunliffe, Labour looks increasingly untidy and undisciplined.

But Mr Shearer won't bow to Mr Sio's call for a number of reasons, and not just because marriage equality is Labour policy.

The 2012 caucus is a very different one to 2008, and the ideological fissures no longer run as deep.

One MP notes that if gay marriage had the potential to be as polarising as smacking or civil union, Prime Minister John Key would have been unlikely to weigh in behind it.

That is not entirely fair since Mr Key actually backed the smacking law change and took a huge political risk in doing so.

But a lot has changed since civil unions were debated nearly a decade ago. Most polls show a sizeable majority of New Zealanders support gay marriage. The heat has gone out of the issue.

Mr Sio's complaints are not groundless, however. Of any group, Pacific voters have been the most loyal to Labour. But in 2008 Labour's South Auckland MPs saw the party's support take a pounding among the conservative Christian core of their Pacific support base. Those voters did not turn elsewhere - they simply stayed home in what was widely seen as a protest against smacking and other measures that tested their loyalty to Labour against their Christian faith.

Party activists, who flooded South Auckland and knocked on doors offering rides to get voters to the polling booth, were buoyed when Labour lifted its percentage of the vote in South Auckland in 2011. But that had as much to do with record low turnout as a successful 'get out the vote' campaign.

If Labour is to win in 2014, it can't afford another no-show election. But it is not just the party's Pacific/Christian base that Mr Shearer's Labour Party has to win back.

In the past decade, Labour has shed nearly 300,000 supporters. Some have gone to National, and others to the Greens. But a sizeable number of that group are probably among the 850,000 who didn't bother to vote in 2011.

Just how to reconnect with them is throwing up a growing ideological divide within the wider Labour Party.

While the caucus seems largely intent on the Shearer strategy of moving closer to the centre, a speech by Mr Cunliffe directly criticising what some see as a National-lite strategy seems to have been an overt move to go over the heads of the caucus and reach out to the grassroots.

Anywhere else, his trenchant criticism of the strategy would have been read as an overt leadership challenge; it is only down to the obvious and visceral dislike for Mr Cunliffe among key members of the caucus, who refuse to take him seriously as a leadership contender, that it did not get more traction.

That is behind the flurry this week over a couple of senior Labour MPs apparently anonymously 'briefing' against Mr Cunliffe as 'lazy' and a disappointment to Mr Shearer.

Some are interpreting it as a step up in the anti-Cunliffe campaign, which predates his bid for the leadership last year. Mr Shearer has quickly squelched any suggestion he is about to demote a man he himself acknowledges has one of the "biggest brains" in caucus.

But the launch of Mr Shearer's 'heartland' tour reconnecting with rural and provincial voters is causing fresh rumbles of discontent from the Left wing blogosphere, who supposedly reflect the party's activist base - the base that Mr Cunliffe appears to be directly reaching out to.

Leaving aside the fact that Labour's push into the 'heartland' seems to have had more sequels than a Hollywood blockbuster, the rationale behind disappearing into provincial New Zealand while the party goes backward in some polls is being questioned, and not just because it keeps Mr Shearer off the national stage.

In fact, Labour's decline can be traced back to its loss of support in the provinces from 2005 on, so the strategy to reconnect and build up the base can be seen as both a necessary and a smart one.

But it is being seen as more than just a push into the provinces, it is a push into heartland National territory - stoking fears that Mr Shearer's Labour is going to be moved much closer to the centre than some of its base might be comfortable with.

That was magnified this week when Mr Shearer opened a speech with an anecdote sympathetic to the notion that there are some sickness beneficiary bludgers. That has gone down badly in some quarters.

Inevitably then, Labour is marching down the road toward the same ideological debate that mired National in disunity and discord between 1999 and 2005 - after defeat, do you shore up your base (which in Labour's case, is being wooed by the Greens), or do you broaden the base, by moving closer to the centre?

The source of that discord within National was not just factional fights within the caucus, but a growing disconnect with the grassroots over personnel and direction.

It sparked the infamous 'dead wood' purge under controversial party president Michelle Boag. It also cost Bill English the leadership; he was fatally damaged by the likes of frontbench MP Maurice Williamson breaking ranks to lambast the party's direction.

However National eventually emerged stronger.

Mr Shearer's tactic up till now has been to tiptoe toward that day. But all that has done is earn him the label Mr Invisible.

He won't carry the party with him if that doesn't change soon.

The Dominion Post