Opinion: Should Labour bring back Cunliffe if Shearer goes?

When rumours of a Labour leadership coup broke on Tuesday night, I bumped into a Green MP as I was racing back to the office.

The first question we asked ourselves is ''Who is it?''. We speculated about David Cunliffe and deputy Grant Robertson.

Grant's not ready, I said.

Grant is definitely ready, the MP said.

I also thought about Andrew Little. He had a boost from the last Herald DigiPoll which had him almost matching Grant Robertson in terms of a suitable replacement for Mr Shearer were he to suddenly depart politics.

It was the same poll that began this round of jitters because Mr Shearer's popularity fell six points and the party's by almost the same amount to 30.9%.

Anyway, by the end of Tuesday night it was clear there was no coup under way by Mr Robertson or anyone else. But Mr Shearer's chances of being replaced before the next election had increased.

At the start of the week I would have put his chances of surviving at 80/20. Now they would be closer to 50/50.

That's for two reasons: first, the party has not united behind him since the leadership contest with Mr Cunliffe in 2011 and the ''man-ban'' issue has reinforced the disrespect the party has for him; and secondly because public talk about a coup can help to make it happen.

The Labour MPs who took to Twitter were angered because they knew even having to deny it makes the possibility that much more plausible.

There may not have been a letter of no-confidence circulating on Tuesday but it is drafted in some people's minds, if not their bottom drawers.

A letter of no-confidence would need 50% of the signatures plus one to trigger a wider vote, so 18 signatures from a caucus of 34, or 17 were a vote to be held between the time Lianne Dalziel resigns for a tilt at the Christchurch mayoralty and is replaced.

The caucus would comprise 40% of the final vote, the party 40% and the affiliates 20%.

(The threshold for a party-wide leadership contest is lower in the caucus confidence vote required after an election - 40% plus one).

The coverage of the whole ''man-ban'' issue has exposed the party's fundamental flaws: its factions, the tensions between the caucus and the party, and the perception that the party is overly concerned with issues of identity.

Amid the leadership issues, there has been a serious debate internally in Labour this week about the wisdom of Maryan Street promoting her euthanasia private member's Bill. Labour is terrified it will be drawn out of the ballot.

The debate would extend into election year and give the Conservatives another platform to boost their support as a potential partner for a third-term National government.

Despite the talk of a no-confidence letter, in the event things got very bad for Labour, it is unlikely Mr Shearer would need a letter.

The more likely scenario is that party seniors and faction brokers Phil Goff and Annette King, would tell him: it's time, David.

He would resign and a new leadership contest would begin.

How bad would it have to get?

There are two reputable polls set to be published in the next few weeks: TV One's and TV3's. May's TV One and TV3's polls both had Labour on 33%, and Fairfax's had it on 31.9%.

Including DigiPoll, three of the four polls have Labour heading south.

It is hard to imagine that the ''man- ban'' issue (allowing some electorates to have women-only selection contests) and subsequent coup talk has done anything but damage.

Mr Shearer looked decisive for half a news cycle. The lasting image is not of a strong leader but one being kicked by one side of his party for not acting sooner and kicked by the other side of the party for acting at all.

If Labour were to drop into the 20s in all three polls and stay there for three months, it would be fatal to Mr Shearer - Mr Goff and Ms King would come knocking.

Then the battle would get interesting.

Would the party go with the candidate who could get them closest to government but risk further disunity in the party, David Cunliffe? Or would it risk going with the lower profile deputy, someone less likely to get them into government, someone with less public appeal (nothing to do with him being gay) but more likely to unify the party?

This is the Robertson dilemma. He might be ready but is the public?

Mr Cunliffe is the candidate National believes is the greatest threat to John Key. Several ministers have said so privately. By that reasoning, Labour should choose him.

According to DigiPoll he would be the preferred replacement by 31.8% of all voters (against 16.6% for Mr Robertson and 13.5% for Mr Little) and 37.7% of Labour voters (19.1% for Mr Robertson and 14% for Mr Little).

His detractors believe that were Mr Cunliffe elected leader, the wider electorate would tire of him quickly, as many of his colleagues have.

Mr Robertson is a less polarising figure, not tested as a minister, respected in Parliament and in the party but less known by the public. His backers installed Mr Shearer, the complete novice.

Talk of no-confidence in Mr Shearer has not been identified as coming from either the Cunliffe or Robertson camps.

It has destabilised Mr Shearer's weakening leadership. But replacing Mr Shearer with either Mr Cunliffe or Mr Robertson would be as risky as the move was to put in Mr Shearer.

In the event of failure, the party could be forced to contemplate a second leadership contest closer to the 2014 election with a wild card such as Shane Jones, Mr Little or even back to Mr Goff as leader were Mr Robertson or Mr Cunliffe unable to steer the party away from a disastrous result akin to Bill English's in 2002 of just over 20%.

None of these scenarios is out of the question. As Labour's Labor cousins across the Ditch have demonstrated, the prospect of electoral defeat trumps everything as the driver of desperate political action.

- Audrey Young is The New Zealand Herald political editor.

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