With three pretenders to see off and an active destabilisation campaign underway, Shearer's hold on the leadership looks precarious. Does he have one big push left in him? And if not, what happens next?

Labour has long defined itself as the party of change and opportunity, and those concepts will be front of mind for many of the party's MPs while on recess.

With his leadership at the crossroads, David Shearer has – remarkably – gone on holiday. And we all know what happens when leaders go on holiday. 'When the cat's away...' and all that. The whispers can start to coalesce into a tactile conversation about the opportunity for change.

When Shearer returns he may have one last shot at convincing New Zealanders – and therefore his caucus – that he is a Prime Minister-in-waiting. Or perhaps by that time enough of his MPs will have crossed the mental rubicon needed to force the leadership issue. Perhaps he knows this and is figuring out his exit plan. Because given the new complexity of Labour's coup rules, it will matter how he reacts when (and it seems to be when, rather than if) the challenge comes.

What's looking increasingly clear is that the only things holding him in place have been a) marginally acceptable polling and b) the lack of consensus around who might replace him. If either of those things change, the shadow-boxing will be over. Shearer will either have to enter the ring against a direct challenger (or more) or negotiate a way out.

Already the polls have stagnated and the momentum started by NZ Power has ebbed. Shearer is rapidly running out of round in which to land some blows.

Political observers can now say pretty confidently that at least three of his colleagues think they could do the job better than him. And that's where Shearer's leadership looks at most risk. While he confidently (and with a little help) out-played David Cunliffe at last year's conference, I'm not convinced he can put out three fires at once. He had the numbers and a sense of hope then. But three fires suggests the numbers are moving away from him and splitting into other camps.

Those fires come in the form of Cunliffe, Andrew Little and his own deputy, Grant Robertson.

I can't seen anyone else in the frame at this stage, although Shane Jones remains an enigmatic repository of immense political talent. Sadly the best women for the job aren't in parliament – Helen Kelly or Laila Harre.

It's obvious that at least one of those camps is actively agitating for change this year. The series of destablising leaks in recent weeks can't be seen as anything other than tactical and co-ordinated. And the biggest concern for Shearer would be if they are coming from more than one camp.

We've seen TV political editors told Shearer has until spring at the latest. We've had the man-ban leak. And we've had 'the letter leak' to Duncan Garner.

While Garner has been hauled over the coals for his tweet that a coup was on, he's been clear that he had the story from at least two sources. A lot can change in several hours in parliament, and knowing Duncan I'm confident his information reflected "a truth" if not "the truth". He was a little more definitive than was wise, but the indications I have is that Labour MPs were rattled that day and leadership was very much the topic du jour. Garner's smoke certainly tells us there's fire – and as I've said, it's probably broken out in three places.

This recess has allowed Labour to douse the flames of controversey temporarily, but the embers are still burning. Shearer is clearly on notice to rapidly start looking like a winner or move aside for someone who does. The sad fact for the Mt Albert MP is that after 18 months in the job he has revealed good humour, pluck and resilience, but not the qualities sufficient to win an election; at least, not the 2014 election.

I'd be fascinated to see a Shearer surge, a last round fight back. But if he only has a few weeks to turn it around, that looks like Mission Impossible.

So what does this mean for Labour? The good part is that this agitation suggests the party hasn't given up on next year's election. Speculation has been that it would suit all the pretenders to let Shearer lose next year before one of them rebuilt on the ashes of that failure. Robertson would have more time to build his profile, Cunliffe would put his failed (non-)bid further behind him, and Little might have time to win a seat.

But if the internal polls, or electorate mood, or party groundswell, or stumbling speech patterns – or whatever it is that has Labour's MPs seriously discussing leadership change – has got them spooked and ready to fight, then good. For the sake of our democracy and the integrity of the values they represent, each party should fight every election tooth and nail.

The risk is that the rebellion(s) being discussed now simply flow from backroom to caucus room and stop there. Shearer replaced Phil Goff via a process that lacked transparency, rigour and, y'know, the public. If Shearer can't turn back the momentum against him, that surely must change.

Labour must follow its British counterparts and, as the Brits did in 2010 following Gordon Brown's resignation, hold a proper primary. While New Zealand Labour won't want to drag it out for four months as UK Labour did, they should allow time for a full and frank debate that could show voters it still has MPs with spirit, the strength of its convictions and, ultimately, a leader who has a clear mandate from a stable and united party.

There should be TV debates, policy arguments and a genuine contest of ideas.

The other thing Labour MPs, party members and affiliates will have to get their head around is that they don't have to like their boss. It seems too much store has been put in Shearer's likeability and that lesson must be learnt. I mean, who likes Kevin Rudd? We know many MPs didn't like Helen Clark. The more important questions are how's effective, who takes the party in the right direction and who can win.

But that all depends on what's happening now, during recess, and what happens when Shearer returns from his holiday and whether or not he has one last crack left in him.

Comments (14)

by Nick Gibbs on July 19, 2013
Nick Gibbs

Really? Labour defines itself as the party of "change and opportunity"? I just don't see it. I myself think of Labour as the party of the status quo.

  More beneficaries for the benefit, more unionism for the workers, infighting, constant negativity.

I've been on the benefit and I belong to a union - they are both good things but neither spell change or opportunity.

However much you like or dislike National at least its fronted by someone who does embody making the most of your opportunities.

by stuart munro on July 19, 2013
stuart munro

While this is a cut above the general Shearer demise stories, and you're right that Laila Harre or Helen Kelly would bring something to the party, why confine these beauty contests to Labour?

It is becoming increasingly apparent that Key is not rational on the subject of spying. When he is forced to resign by Kim Dotcom's proof of lying shortly before the election, who will step into the breach? Will it be Murray McCully, whose Downfall style rants are so legendary? Judith Collins, who seems determined to establish herself as NZ's Oprah of Twitter? It could be Gerry Brownlee, whose impact on Christchurch is on a par with that of the Kaiju from Pacific Rim. National is a collection of these titanic figures, each presaging a different future, patiently toiling in the cthonic bowels of the party as they wait for the gilded figurehead to fall. It can't be Bill English, no-one who lost a charisma duel with Don Brash is going to lead a party to victory, and a finance minister who returns 0.3% growth is not long for office.

by Steve on July 19, 2013

The main problem for Labour is that their caucus contains more lemons than an average citrus orchard. The best thing for them would be a defeat like the Queensland Labour party, which would enable real talent to be introduced to replace the current has-beans.

by BeShakey on July 19, 2013

Like the other commentators, I would like to say huzzah for my side and boooo for the others.

by Pete George on July 19, 2013
Pete George

"a) marginally acceptable polling"

I'm surprised and very disappointed to see what seems to be a common attitude that low thirties in the polls is acceptable for Labour. There seems to be no ambition to compete head to head with National, as Labour has wimped itself in  as a second tier party. Seems like a  capitulation.

by Richard Aston on July 19, 2013
Richard Aston

Why on earth is Helen Kelly or Laila Harre not standing for labour? Laila Harre looked positivly statewoman like on your The Vote show. Helen Kelly has such a graceful and sharp intelligence she is wasted outside of parliment.

However it seems there is still a twitching life in the corpse of Labour pehaps. The labour backroom is getting shuffled around

But as you say Tim is this all backroom stuff , a transparent process we could all be part of could be much better. I for one would be putting Helen Kelly up in the front row.

Hey Tim no need to rationalise Garner's gossip leaks. Duncan Garner is swimming in the political soup, he's long crossed the line between objective and participatory journalism a long time ago and good on him. He's not reporting on labour's internal struggles he's part of them. Hell someone has to rark them up.

My hope is labour can raise their vision beyound their own internal politics. My hope is they can lift their game, truly partner with the greens and give voters a credible, inspiring opposition grouping we can vote for next year.

In the last election National got 32% of the eligible voters , Labour got 18.7% , Greens 7.5 % . But 25.8 % of eligible voters just didn't vote - second to National!

Why didn't those 25.8% not vote, what would inpsire them to vote and who would they vote for ?


by Richard Aston on July 19, 2013
Richard Aston

Hey Nick " making the most of your opportunities" is great for business but its a not much of a  moral compass to run a country .

Some just cannot "making the most of their opportunities" , some really don't have many opportunities and many don't even know what an opportunity is. Caring about those who cannot make it in the great economic race is what makes us human.



by Matthew Percival on July 20, 2013
Matthew Percival

Helen Kelly? That would be a massive backward step for a party that already has large union involvement. Her goose is already cooked due to her hysterical rants on The Hobbit and Ports of Auckland.

Why is Andrew Little's name in the picture? Couldn't even win his electorate.

Caring about those who cannot make it in the great economic race is what makes us human.

We can all make a contribution. It's just that some choose not to maximise their abilities and in doing so they create a drag on everyone else.

by stuart munro on July 20, 2013
stuart munro

@ Matthew - most people who would consider voting Labour consider the union influence a good thing. It's a bit like the National relationship with the gambling industry - the merits are less apparent to opponents.

by william blake on July 21, 2013
william blake

 The most important thing is a big voter turnout. At the last election the narrative was Labour is dead in the water and Key is mr nice guy; and voters stayed home in their droves. The right were only just elected (28,000?majority with a voter downturn in the hundreds of thousands)

If the narrative becomes less about personality and more about policy and how it affects society perhaps we will have a more sane and democratic election.

by Richard Aston on July 22, 2013
Richard Aston

"We can all make a contribution. It's just that some choose not to maximise their abilities and in doing so they create a drag on everyone else."

Thats the new right thinking in a nutshell. Its profoundly limited thinking.

It interesting how those that can't work are seen as a drag on everyone else but those who have maximised their abilities to the extent they pay little or no tax are not seen as a drag on everyone else.

Most of those who can't work did not choose that , all of those who don't pay their fair share of tax choose not to pay tax.

by Wayne McIndoe on July 22, 2013
Wayne McIndoe

They have to start appealing to those traditional Labour voters who ror some reason choose to stay away at the last election. I understand that it was th South Auckland block that got the Clark led government over the line in 2005. Shearer needs to enunciate a vision, bring a bit more of his background out into the public domain. Key has been very successful in enunciating the "boy from a state housing area done good to be a millionaire, and taking a pay cut to come back and serve his country", I am sure that has resonate well with many voters. Shearer needs to do a similar thing. I mean what was his role in the UN? - start trying to use that to his and Labour's advantage,

by Tim Watkin on July 23, 2013
Tim Watkin

Stuart: Because Key has staggeringly high popularity for someone who has been in office as long as him. Nonoe of those other names comes close, a leadership challenge in National is simply laughable.

Pete: It's simple maths. Of course Labour would like higher, but it's within shouting distance of forming a government with the Greens. The left vote is split in a way the right isn't.


by Tim Watkin on July 23, 2013
Tim Watkin

Nick: Look at which party has led the most transformative politics in NZ history. Labour has led change, National has been the conservative one. So people have tended to vote National in riskier times as a reflection of that.

Matthew: Kelly's been proved right with both The Hobbit and Ports cases, has she not? She'd be polarising (and probably wouldn't want to play the politics of compromise required, ie given the way she played The Hobbit), but her goose is far from cooked.

It's a good point you others make about turnout  – Labour needs South Auckland to turn out in big numbers again... and to get some traction in the provinces. And none of those potential leaders sing much in the way of that song. Maybe Cunliffe comes closest.

Wayne, if Shearer hasn't established that personal brand yet, can he now?

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