Labour may have pushed Shearer off a cliff

Last updated 05:00 18/11/2012

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Bitter conference is manna from heaven for Key's machine, writes Vernon Small .

In its headlong rush to give grassroots members a greater say in future leadership votes, the Labour Party may have just pushed its current leader over the cliff.

Even if the damage to David Shearer isn't fatal, it has made the party's already difficult job that much harder.

However good his speech is today - and he was already under pressure to deliver a blockbuster full of core policy and "mongrel" - for the next three months he is the man on a knife edge.

If just 14 of his 33 caucus colleagues opt for change, the first two months of 2013 will be steeped in Labour bloodletting.

That's the upshot of constitutional changes passed by delegates yesterday after an impassioned debate that exposed a bitterly divided party. It was the most extraordinary internecine political warfare since Rogernomics split the party in the 1980s, all played out on the conference floor.

In general the left, the unions and the north - let's call it the Cunliffe camp - heavily backed the 40 per cent trigger with Wellington, the right and most MPs backing a simple majority that would have given embattled Shearer much greater protection.

It is manna from heaven for John Key's fraying political machine that has just negotiated another week from hell.

Now National can run the line hard that if Labour wins in 2014, a minority in the caucus backed by dark forces in the party could, in just a matter of months, replace the people's choice of prime minister.

The delegates could have controlled the damage to Shearer's leadership by not insisting on a caucus vote in February, leaving it till the next cycle in 2014.

Senior MPs Trevor Mallard and David Parker tried to steer them that way but they were simply not listening.

Because in the end this was not just about a new constitution to make the party more open and democratic. It was also about the Cunliffe camp's revenge for being ignored after last year's primary race when the caucus installed Shearer as leader.

Former president Andrew Little yanked the cover off the elephant in the room, calling the rule change for what it was: a proxy for "contemporary anxiety about the leadership".

Cunliffe all but confirmed his interest in a challenge after his victory on the conference floor although, as one senior MP observed, "more than 60 per cent of the MPs voted for the trigger to stay at 50 per cent" - suggesting Shearer is safe for now - a spill cannot be ruled out even before February.

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And then what? A new leader with a majority in the wider party but with a caucus that opposed him? And a dreadful bloodletting during the 2014 candidate selection process - which is already so fraught the party postponed its reform till late 2013?

In the meantime, Shearer's leadership, already under pressure, will suffer a thousand speculations.

He has yet to show his hand and may think he can drink from the party's poisoned chalice and survive. But his inner circle were late yesterday contemplating his next move.

The nuclear option would be to call Cunliffe out, confront him, demote him or put his unspoken challenge to the party now so February's vote becomes a formality.

- Sunday Star Times

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