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
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
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
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
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
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.