Party yet to decide

16:00, Nov 20 2012

If David Shearer wishes to retain the leadership of the parliamentary Labour Party he should put aside any thoughts he may have for a surfing holiday this summer.

Yesterday, he obtained the support of the party caucus in a wholly unnecessary vote of confidence that he called. He also demoted his rival, David Cunliffe. His problem, however, is not his support in caucus but rather that in the wider party. Under new rules adopted at the party's annual conference last weekend, the wider party now has a greater say in the choice of the leader and whether Shearer will survive there is a much more open question.

Since the weekend, Shearer's supporters have been talking up his performance at the conference and it is true that the keynote speech Shearer gave on Sunday went down well amongst the faithful. But the bar had not been set very high. Preaching to a roomful of one's most committed activists (and those who turn up for conferences are by definition the hard-core of the party) is not much of a test of a leader. Furthermore, no-one has ever doubted Shearer's capacity to read a fully scripted, exhaustively rehearsed speech. It is his performance off the cuff that is the worry. Expectations were so low, that anything less than an outright disaster was going to be greeted with delight.

Unless Shearer can continue to please the rank and file, however, the happy glow from that performance will soon wane and the disgruntlement many plainly feel will re-emerge. That disgruntlement was on full show earlier in the conference when the new rules altering the leadership election process were adopted. Under them, a leadership vote must be held in February and that vote will no longer be confined to the parliamentary caucus. Instead, the caucus will count for only 40 per cent, with the other 40 per cent going to general party members and 20 per cent to unions.

That was undoubtedly a strategic victory for Cunliffe. When Cunliffe and Shearer canvassed the wider party as they tussled for the leadership just over a year ago, the party clearly favoured Cunliffe. Nothing in Shearer's performance since then will have done much to persuade them that they were wrong. It was only because the vote at that time was confined to caucus that the prize went to Shearer.

Because a leadership vote in February is mandatory, Shearer's call for a vote of confidence yesterday was unnecessary. He was driven no doubt by the urge to be seen to do something. He also might have hoped he could put the question of a challenge behind him. Shearer, and his caucus supporters, want the matter over, but it is unlikely anything before February is going to end it.

There is no good time for an internecine party scrap, although two years out from an election is probably better than any. For all the talk about Shearer's public performance, ideological and policy differences are at the heart of the squabble. Shearer and his supporters want the party to hew to the centre-Left, where they believe (correctly) the electorate is. Cunliffe, and the wider party activists, would drag it much further Left.

With time on his hands on the back bench, Cunliffe can, if he chooses, use it to marshal support for a renewed bid. Despite yesterday's vote, if the wider party continues to want Cunliffe and the caucus Shearer, the leadership will continue to be an issue. That is likely still be put to the test in February.


The Press