The Labour leadership

The lead-up to next year's general election suddenly looks like it could hold some real excitement.

The resignation of Labour Party leader David Shearer on Thursday after a period of much speculation has cleared the way for an injection of fresh ideas, energy and impetus.

Under Mr Shearer's leadership, the party has failed to fire. Aside from its recent housing policy announcement, there has been little real meat to engage voters.

And although ''nice'' and ''integrity'' are the words often used to describe Mr Shearer, his lack of experience in the political sphere seems to have become more, not less, apparent over time, and his performance in the House and in front of the camera has failed to inspire.

It is to his credit that he realised he was not the man to lead the party into an election, and resigned, as the rumblings of discontent had been getting louder, and the time frame in which a new leader could make an impact shorter.

Despite continuing to deny there was dissatisfaction in the ranks and stating he would head the party into the election, an anonymous Labour MP had said at the end of June that Mr Shearer had been put on two months' notice to improve personal and party poll ratings or face a likely leadership challenge.

The speculation, backbiting, whispering and divisions within the party have not done it any favours - at a time when it could be making an impact and working to reverse its unprecedented poor showing at the 2011 election.

While John Key's personal popularity has remained largely consistently high, and he is hoping to lead his party into a third term, there is enough public concern about the Government's more controversial policies and legislation (think mining on conservation land, state-owned asset sales, the Sky City casino deal, and those that have been viewed as undemocratic and threats to freedoms such as the GCSB changes, rights of caregivers of disabled adult children, the right to protest at sea, combined with ongoing job losses in various sectors) that a clever, charismatic leader, could - and should - be able to exploit through a combination of policy and personality.

The only realistically viable contenders - David Cunliffe, who challenged Mr Shearer for the leadership in 2011 after Phil Goff's resignation, and deputy leader Grant Robertson - are being coy about their intentions.

Mr Cunliffe has been biding his time on the backbenches and clearly has the nous, standing and more ''aggressive'' personality that could really threaten National, although he has less support in the Labour caucus.

Mr Robertson is widely liked and immensely capable, but is still far more junior in experience. His sexuality - despite the progress being made on that front through legislation and general attitudes - cannot be discounted as a factor for more conservative party members and voters.

It would seem the best possible combination for Labour could be Mr Cunliffe as leader, with Mr Robertson continuing as deputy. Under the party's new rules, if there is a contest, the leader will be chosen by the caucus (40%), party members (40%) and unions (20%) and a decision likely to take a month.

While some believe a challenge would be good, there is clearly much work to be done.

This newspaper believes it may well be better for a leadership decision to be made quickly and cleanly, without exposing the party to further speculation and highlighting the divisions. A united front is vital if Labour is to make a difference.

The new leader needs to be firmly established ahead of its conference on November 1 so the real hard yards can begin, and the conference can concentrate on policies not personalities.

MPs only have to look across the Tasman at the damage caused to the Labor Party there with years of in-house political bad-blood, bickering and undermining in Canberra.

Strong, stable leadership is the keystone to Labour's support here. It must get back to those basics if it has any hope of making a difference going forward.


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