Editorial: Neither done nor dusted

IN CHARGE: David Shearer speaks with confidence after the Labour caucus votes in support of him unanimously.
IN CHARGE: David Shearer speaks with confidence after the Labour caucus votes in support of him unanimously.

In defeat, malice. In victory, revenge.

It's not an uplifting business but a political leader who remains in power after a challenge is expected - arguably required - to stamp down really hard on his failed usurper.

Helen Clark did it. Bill English did it. Don Brash did it. David Shearer has just done it.

He has delivered what is easily characterised as a show of old-fashioned political strength. It may well do his poll standing some good. It isn't necessarily a bad thing for a politician not renowned for his toughness to show himself capable of emerging from a high-stakes struggle with his assailant trampled underfoot.

The downtrodden David Cunliffe has been demoted to almost-subterranean status and Labour MPs have been silenced to prevent them delivering any unseemly eulogies, regrets or, worst of all, veiled suggestions resurrection as anything other than a penitent.

This, we are invited to conclude, is the last of it.

Which it isn't.

Mr Shearer received 100 per cent support of his leadership which, on the face of it, means even Mr Cunliffe now sees that this is the man to lead the party into the next election.

So much for the face of it, then.

The subterranean dynamics aren't even all that subterranean. It is quite clear that some Labour MPs haven't made up their minds about Mr Shearer's longer-term leadership at all. Or, if they have, it's in the manner of most political support; temporary and subject to expectations regarding an upturn, or at very least preservation, of their own fortunes.

If Mr Shearer has not conspicuously improved his public standing within the next three months then the scheduled February leadership vote will not be the formality that some are predicting.

The party cannot afford to linger in a state of disunity because the public has scant tolerance for that. But really what Mr Shearer has earned himself here is a few months to show his leadership is getting traction with the public.

His rhetoric is predictably purposeful. Although he acknowledges "a lot of undermining" of his leadership, "we want to put that to bed".

It won't be easy, particularly as Mr Cunliffe's standing within the wider party has long been higher than it is in caucus.

His electorate branch is reportedly considering a formal complaint to the party over some of the nastier comments some of their guy's, erm, teammates made about him.

That would be a truculent, unhelpful, pretty much pointless exercise. So they probably will do it.

Perhaps Mr Shearer will want to firm up his not-such-a-softy credentials before the February vote. As things stand, however, it's far from clear where exactly he is going to target. Whatever it is, he better not miss.

Prime Minister John Key, meanwhile, has been able to portray Labour's ructions as something other than an honest and flinty contest. Rather, he invites us to see the venomous infighting of a caucus who neither like nor trust one another.

Heavens. You hear about such things occurring overseas, of course, but you never really think it could happen here . . .

The Southland Times