Editorial: Crucial speech for Shearer

19:51, Nov 12 2012

On "Black Tuesday" - November 12, 1912 - Fred Evans was killed in Waihi in the midst of a bitter six-month strike by miners. He had been one of a few strikers defending a hall that was stormed by strike-breakers and police. Both sides were armed. He was one of only two New Zealanders to die in an industrial dispute.

Commemorated in the Hauraki District town at the weekend, the strike collapsed soon after Mr Evans' death. But it helped galvanise a disparate array of Left-wing groups and led to the Labour Party's formation in 1916.

Tensions among the factions in those days are mirrored in tensions today, including differences over whether David Shearer should remain as leader. Three recent posts on The Standard, a Labour-leaning blog, call for him to step down or be axed.

Huge importance accordingly attaches to Mr Shearer's speech to the party conference this weekend, his first as party leader. But it is shaping as possibly his last, because of the storm clouds gathering, Fairfax political writer Vernon Small observes. If he fails to satisfy grassroots members with a hard-hitting address that takes the fight to the Government while outlining a clear and personal view of where he intends to take Labour, a push for a leadership challenge is likely.

Party critics of Mr Shearer's leadership complain of an air of disengagement from the caucus (illustrated by the majority of Labour MPs who voted against the party's preference, David Cunliffe, late last year).

Former Labour Party secretary-general Mike Smith, on the other hand, says calling for Mr Shearer's head in the week before the conference is a sign of panic, and panic makes for bad decisions. Anyway, British Labour leader Ed Miliband and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard are two derided leaders who showed how one strong performance at a party conference could make a huge difference to their and their party's prospects.

But Mr Smith's focus was not so much on who should be the leader. Rather, it was on timing: he insists now is not the right time for a change. But others make practical sense when they argue that any change must be made now. Otherwise it will be too late to allow a new leader and the party to get their house in order and rally support for the 2014 election.