Labour falls into line as Shearer bares his teeth

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 19/11/2012
David Shearer
SCOTT HAMMOND/Fairfax NZ
LABOUR LEADER: David Shearer.

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OPINION: Now we know what a fired-up David Shearer looks like. And all it took was a near revolt among the Labour grassroots and an attempt to tilt the playing field against him.

The Labour leader may have looked close to dog tucker on Saturday after a rule change championed by his opponents was forced through in an attempt to kneecap him ahead of a crucial confidence vote next year.

But by overplaying his hand, rival David Cunliffe has delivered Mr Shearer the platform to force a vote on his leadership from a position of strength, rather than endure months of destabilising speculation.

Mr Cunliffe may also have damaged his support within the wider party which, for the first time, yesterday looked ready to swing behind Mr Shearer's leadership.

After a turbulent session on Saturday, during which divisions within the party and questions over the leadership were laid bare, the grassroots appeared to step back from the brink and greet Mr Shearer's speech with a show of unity.

They delivered him a standing ovation after a less than enthusiastic reception on the first day of the conference.

Mr Shearer, meanwhile, gave them the impassioned defence of Labour values they were looking for in a speech evoking echoes of Michael Joseph Savage and his state house building programme.

But the fightback began even before the speech got underway, when Mr Shearer's wife Anushka stood to endorse her husband's leadership in place of party president Moira Coatsworth.

It was both a snub and a clear pointer to the tensions within the party after Ms Coatsworth opened the conference and failed to endorse Shearer's leadership.

If Mr Shearer wins a caucus vote, he will have seen off the immediate challenge but he will not be out of the woods.

He must still win over union affiliates, who block-voted in favour of the rule change that would have weakened his leadership and questions still remain over his performance.

The conference also laid bare the growing distance between the wider party and the caucus, and particularly the direction Mr Shearer is seeking to take it, toward the political centre.

The clear message from Saturday's vote, and the wider party stand on issues including female candidate quotas and a financial transaction tax, demonstrates that the grassroots are still well to the left of the caucus.

There is also a fight to be had over the influence of union and special interest groups on candidate selection. Unless Mr Shearer can exert his authority over those arguments, the numbers may not look as kind for him after the 2014 election.

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