Labour's missed opportunity

Any thought that David Shearer has secured his long-term future as leader of the Labour Party should be put aside.

Despite securing a 100% supporting vote from the caucus this week, demoting outspoken MP David Cunliffe will only ensure the next few months see the media and party supporters focus their attention on the next leadership vote in February.

There seemed little point to Mr Shearer's actions in calling an emergency caucus this week to secure another vote in support of his leadership as, already, he had received support on Sunday at the end of the party's annual conference in Auckland.

The reports from the conference showed Mr Shearer had become the leader Labour has been waiting for since he won a ballot from Mr Cunliffe after a nationwide tour meeting members and supporters.

Labour has languished in the polls since Mr Shearer took charge, although closer scrutiny shows that, while his personal ratings are not high, Labour has indeed lifted in support. The party received support in some circles for its capital gains tax and its suggestions on monetary policy reform to ease the burden of a high dollar on manufacturing exporters. But all that disappeared, along with its policy to help first-home owners on to the property ladder, by the unwelcome distraction of a so-called leadership challenge.

Was a challenge given?

Nowhere was it reported that Mr Cunliffe openly said he wanted to replace Mr Shearer. His sin was not giving unequivocal support for the next vote to be held in February.

By all reports, the February vote is a secret ballot so it hardly seems in the interests of anyone to reveal their voting stance now. Mr Shearer will need to connect quickly with Labour supporters who seem to be increasingly divided. Mr Cunliffe's electorate is said to be seeking a review on his demotion to the back bench from the influential role as economic development spokesman.

New Zealand politicians are poll-driven. Former prime minister Helen Clark was, at one stage, even lower in the popularity stakes than where Mr Shearer now finds himself. She was confronted by a bunch of Labour members of Parliament calling for her to step down as leader.

She refused, saw them off, practically single-handedly won the 1999 election for Labour and stayed in power for nine years.

Instead of banishing Michael Cullen to the backbenches, Ms Clark formed a strong working relationship with her finance minister, allowing the Labour government to introduce its social policies.

Mr Shearer will now find himself judged by Labour's polling support. And he may be found wanting.

Strangely, Mr Shearer now has two of his strongest MPs on the back bench - Mr Cunliffe and Shane Jones. It is unrealistic to expect them to form an alliance but Labour is not so rich with talent that those two men of considerable debating skills should be put to one side.

Supporters of Mr Cunliffe, and there are quite a few, will keep their heads down over the next few months. Mr Shearer has said there will be no more demotions but whether shifting Mr Cunliffe off the front bench gives him enough room for the promised reshuffle before Christmas is open for debate. The compulsory February leadership vote will be already on the minds of the Labour caucus. Tradition has it that Labour's leadership is often decided over a summer barbecue.

At this stage in an election cycle, Labour should be hammering home any advantage it can find against the John Key-led Government. There have been numerous opportunities, and they have been wasted. The Green Party and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters are at present the Government's main opposition.

Voters have asked for Labour to release policy. The party released its KiwiBuild scheme which it said would put 100,000 families into their first home.

Instead, the focus was on whether Labour was a party with a leader who was ready to govern. On evidence this week, the party remains divided and disorganised. Labour remains further from the Treasury benches than ever.