Editorial: Labour conference missed opportunity

Whatever happens over the latest Labour Party leadership dust-up, the clear winner is . . . Prime Minister John Key and the National Party. National's strategists must have been in seventh heaven as the rival party's annual conference unfolded over the weekend.

Labour's delegates and MPs should have been celebrating gains - slow, steady but nonetheless real - against the Key administration and presenting a unified front to the public.

Instead, they sparked fresh speculation over a potential leadership challenge involving the previously defeated David Cunliffe - who added to the party's difficulties by refusing to fully endorse his leader, David Shearer, and failing to rule out standing against him should it go to the vote.

Conference moves to modernise and "democratise" the party might well be necessary long-term. However, they were immediately seized on by some elements in the party as an opportunity to press for a change of leader. Short-term, then, the conference has been more destabilising than invigorating.

The changes mean that, should he decide to mount a challenge, Mr Cunliffe would need only 14 of Labour's 34 caucus members in order to force a full vote on the leadership. In that event, Labour members and union affiliates will also have a say, and this could be a game-changer.

Mr Shearer and his supporters are clearly fed up with a recent surge of interest in his leadership credentials and performance during his nine months in the job.

Detractors suggest his performance is lack-lustre and a stronger leader would have been able to capitalise on any number of issues this year - from unemployment and housing to the Dotcom fiasco. Supporters point to the long time it took eventual prime minister Helen Clark to cement her position as party leader, and suggest those questioning Mr Shearer's ability are wrongly elevating style over substance.

A difficulty for Mr Shearer is that political opponents will always seize on weakness - perceived or real - as they seek to score cheap points with a gullible public. In politics, perception is everything - and it can be difficult enough to counter attacks from outside the party, let alone also having to deal with those that are generated from within.

He needs to move swiftly in order to focus party members' minds on the main task in hand - building a credible government-in-waiting - and, nearly as importantly, selling that to a public still in awe of Mr Key.

His ability to do so is being undermined by speculation over a potential leadership coup. Nothing feeds public cynicism about a party's ability to govern than the appearance of debilitating in-fighting. His response, then, to talk of a challenge from Mr Cunliffe - whatever the latter might be saying in public - will be instructive.

Presumably both Davids - if not the entire party membership - signed up out of a belief in Labour's ideals. With that goes the notion that the party can achieve more in power than out of it. Personal ambition should play no part in that - a point seemingly lost by Mr Cunliffe and his backers.

The Nelson Mail