OPINION: With the dramatic but not unexpected demise of David Shearer this week, all eyes have now turned to the search for the next leader of the Labour Party.
If the party's parliamentary caucus was smart, it would begin the long road to repairing Labour's tattered brand by ensuring the contest to replace Mr Shearer is not a contest at all. There is only one credible candidate capable of leading the party out of the Opposition wilderness and on to the Treasury benches: David Cunliffe.
Labour had two choices of leader in 2011, Mr Shearer and Mr Cunliffe. Mr Shearer's decision to step down on Thursday before he was pushed was the final, unequivocal verdict on the decision made two years ago - it was the wrong one.
Mr Cunliffe had strong support among party members during the 2011 runoff, but the caucus's well publicised personal distaste for him was a barrier their better political instincts couldn't break through. Quite frankly, it's time for them to get over it.
And with Labour's new rules for electing a leader giving 40 per cent of the vote to party members and 20 per cent to union affiliates, the party's MPs might not have a choice.
If the leadership is contested, it's widely expected that it will be a battle between Mr Cunliffe and deputy leader Grant Robertson. Mr Robertson is incredibly impressive, and a far more effective political operator than Mr Shearer. He is seen by many, though, as being firmly rooted in the Wellington beltway - a politician's politician - and his appeal to provincial voters is questionable. And that's important.
Labour's fundamental problem isn't policy, it's presentation. The party has rolled out some strong policy platforms - most notably in relation to addressing the undersupply of affordable housing, and high electricity prices - that should have been vote winners.
The reason such shamelessly populist proposals failed to move the dial Labour's way was because the party lacks credibility with the public. It has failed to cultivate the perception that it is an alternative government with a clear vision for where the country needs to go and what it needs to do to get there.
Mr Shearer simply did not have the communication skills to articulate that counter-narrative to voters. He lacked the polish, gravitas and ruthlessness required to convince New Zealanders he was a prime minister-in-waiting.
Mr Cunliffe has those attributes. He might not win a personal popularity contest with his caucus colleagues, but he is the only one among them capable of winning the only popularity contest any of them should really care about - a general election.
- Manawatu Standard
Who do you think won Key v Cunliffe's second debate?Related story: Leaders debate reveals more even contest