Labour deals itself a bad hand

Annual political conferences are meant to provide the party holding them with a real shot in the arm.

In the case of the Labour Party's conference at the weekend it was more a case of shooting themselves in the foot.

For two and a bit days, Labour had an opportunity to set the political news agenda, instead media reports were dominated by "turmoil" in the party.

That "turmoil" of course was over the performance of leader David Shearer and whether or not David Cunliffe would mount a challenge to replace him.

Mr Cunliffe would not rule out challenging for the leadership in February when a mandatory vote would be held.

He repeatedly told reporters instead that the question of who should be Labour leader was not a matter for "this conference".

Well it became the issue everyone was talking about afterwards regardless.

And what that means is any traction Labour might have gained from the weekend was effectively squandered.

Now that of course plays into Mr Cunliffe's hands, if you wanted to be cynical about it.

Even when the media weren't talking about whether Mr Cunliffe wanted Mr Shearer's job they were talking about how he might go about getting it.

Plenty of column inches were devoted in the media yesterday to changes to how a Labour leadership challenge can be triggered and then how the voting is carried out.

Under the new voting rules, when a leadership vote is triggered, caucus votes only count towards 40 per cent of the total vote, 40 per cent goes to party members and the other 20 per cent to unions.

There is a new rule whereby leadership votes can be held if 40 per cent of the Labour caucus, 14 MPs in the current Parliament, vote for it.

So Mr Cunliffe only needs 13 backers to make a run at Mr Shearer.

Not likely to be among that 13 however is Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway.

The two-term MP was reluctant to declare which David's camp he was in before the vote earlier this year that gave Mr Shearer the job.

However at the weekend he told Patrick Gower of TV3 that he was part of team Shearer. He also tweeted several comments in support of Mr Shearer following his conference-ending speech.

And for the record it was a good speech. Mr Shearer's delivery is improving and he outlined some of the policies the party would take to the next election.

The capital gains tax was still there, as was opposition to asset sales, plus a new plan to build 100,000 affordable homes within 10 years. Affordable housing is good, strong, core Labour policy that goes back to the party's first stint in Government under Michael Joseph Savage.

But to enact that policy, and others mentioned in the speech, Labour and its coalition partner or partners need the majority of the vote.

To do that, Labour's big challenge remains being able to present itself to voters as a legitimate leader of an alternative coalition Government.

It is something they have struggled to do ever since their hiding in the 2008 election, Helen Clark's election night resignation and the promotion of Phil Goff to the leadership.

So far they have not been able to do that and the conjecture over the leadership throughout the weekend has done more harm than good.

If Labour Party MPs are stating in speeches at the conference that Labour's own party members have doubts over Mr Shearer, how are voters meant to perceive him as a legitimate challenger for prime minister?

It's perception in the end that matters, not reality. And what voters see in the media is key.

The average voter is not going to go and find Mr Shearer's speech for themselves, they're not reading the blogs that critiqued it yesterday or following the Twitter hashtag.

No, they're catching a bit of politics news on the TV as they prepare dinner, or in the paper at work the next day or, more likely these days, on the paper's website.

But rather than taking an opportunity to show voters Labour can be in Government, the weekend resulted in infighting and a public airing of what seem to be deep divisions.

Divisions that will not be fixed if Mr Cunliffe becomes the leader.

Opening the conference on Friday evening, Mr Shearer said he would be opposition leader "for only two more years".

That seems a certainty regardless of the election result in 2014 - for if the knives are out for Mr Shearer now, they'll be well-sharpened should Labour lose at the election.

Mathew Grocott is the Manawatu Standard deputy chief of staff and politics reporter.

Grant Miller is on leave this week. His regular column will return on November 26.

Manawatu Standard