Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: The writing is on the wall for David Shearer

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Labour leader David Shearer. Photo / Getty Images
Labour leader David Shearer. Photo / Getty Images

The writing is on the wall for David Shearer. Or at least the writing is all over the blogosphere and pundit columns. Criticisms of Shearer are no longer only coming from the right or from the parliamentary press gallery. Instead, a variety of leftwing commentators and Labour supporters are now calling time on Shearer's leadership. From Brian Edwards through to the Labour supporting blogsite, The Standard, various commentators and activists are expressing strong views about what they see as the failure of the 'Shearer experiment'. Perhaps the most interesting is Brian Edwards' blogpost entitled The writing's on the wall for David Shearer which, like others, says that Labour can't win the next election with their current leadership.

The most revealing anti-Shearer blogposts are from within the Labour-sphere itself. The Standard blog - which is normally slavishly pro-Labour and its leadership - is suddenly publishing incredibly frank and fierce calls for Shearer to go. One of The Standard's most senior writers, 'Eddie', has announced that Labour will lose the next election if Shearer stays as leader - see: On David Shearer's Leadership. 'Eddie' writes: 'David Shearer has simply shown time and again that he is not up for the job. He can't handle the stress, he can't think on his feet, and he doesn't have a solid set of beliefs to give him a firm footing when he stands up on issues. His attempts at gotcha politics have been discrediting failures.

If at least two thirds of Labour supporters don't think he's the best person to be PM, what hope has he got of retaining and attracting swing votes in a contest for the top job?' The Standard has published a series of other posts about Shearer's leadership - such as the highly-critical It's time to go and Shuffle the caucus deck.

This is an extraordinary development just one week out from the Labour Party annual conference at which Shearer is to make his first appearance as leader and give his first conference speech. This is a very dangerous game for those in the party to play. Blog posts such as these are incredibly undermining of Shearer's leadership and will have the impact of turning him into a lame duck leader who is obviously not supported by Labour's own activists.

It is not just the blogosphere exerting intense pressure on Shearer. Vernon Small has written an in-depth and must-read analysis on the Labour leader - see: Shearer's first conference speech may be his last. Small catalogues Shearer's perceived failings and reports on what people in or close to the party are saying about his performance. It's certainly not pretty - although the consensus is to wait to see how Shearer performs at the conference. Also see Andrea Vance's Time fast running out for Labour leader. She says that 'He's got about 20 minutes to convince a disillusioned party faithful that he's not invisible, hasn't got a speech impediment - and that he's got a cunning plan to convince the voters that Labour can deliver a costed, credible alternative to National-omics'. So no pressure then?

The other important call for Shearer to go comes from Herald columnist Tapu Misa - see: Labour should look hard at leader's competence. Misa suggests that Shearer and Labour are out of touch - especially with the fact that neoliberalism is now discredited. Her most cutting criticism of Labour is this: 'We need new thinking and new models - and they won't come from the defenders of the current orthodoxy'.

David Farrar says that the series of published anti-Shearer opinions suggests that 'a co-ordinated strategy to destabilise Shearer in the leadup to the Labour conference' has been launched from within Labour - see: The war against Shearer. Farrar says that 'Someone has decided to push the button. The only rational reason to come out all guns blazing just seven days before the Labour Annual Conference is so that Shearer is undermined at the conference'.

In another post, Farrar outlines his theory that the current internal Labour Party battle is being launched in a way to produce a bloodless coup whereby Shearer feels compelled to resign: 'My understanding of the strategy in play, is that those in Labour wanting a change do not want an actual leadership challenge to Shearer. They are deliberately piling pressure on to force him to quit, so no one has blood on their hands' - see: Edwards joins the chorus calling for Shearer to resign.

There is strong logic in this analysis, but is there really a deliberate campaign going on to destabilise Shearer? Danyl Mclauchlan says 'It could just be that loads of people on the left don't think Shearer is a very good leader, and the week before his conference is a salient time to point that out' - see: How David Shearer can shore up his leadership. Scott Yorke is even more disparaging of such a 'conspiracy theory' and has blogged that he is Not Playing. But he's made the argument against the existence of a 'Vast Leftwing Conspiracy' even better in the amusing satirical blogpost, A Day In The Life Of That Labour MP.

There are voices coming out in support of Shearer. First, on The Standard, ex-General Secretary of Labour, Mike Smith says Don't panic. He argues that the coming conference speech could turn Shearer's fortunes around - especially in light of similar magical revivals in the fortunes of other Labour leaders internationally, such as Julia Gillard in Australia and Ed Milliband in Britain. (Although perhaps Shearer could more aptly compared to the current French Socialist Party leader and President, Francois Hollande, who is also struggling).

And today, Shearer gets some support from senior political voices. John Armstrong says Labour shouldn't panic, and that 'there is still plenty of time before the 2014 election for the party to decide whether he stays or goes' - see: Performance at conference could decide leader's fate. Notably, however, Armstrong also says that Shearer's detractors are hardly being rash, but providing something 'more like reasoned and considered discourse between party members', and he recommends that Labour does actually take heed of such 'frenzied blog activity'.

Richard Long - rightwing commentator and ex-National chief of staff - also endorses Shearer being given a fair chance to perform in his wide-ranging final newspaper column, Richard Long's parting shots.

David Shearer's reaction to the 'crescendo of calls for him to step down by left-leaning bloggers and commentators' is, according to Claire Trevett, to say 'it is "nonsense" and should be ignored' - see: Shearer plays down leadership row. He is quoted as saying that it's simply 'a small circle of bloggers feeding off each other and I'm surprised the media is taking it seriously'.

The online prediction market is trading shares in the likelihood of Shearer's departure in high volume at the moment - see the iPredict David Shearer page. According to the market, Shearer is unlikely to go this year - there's only a 19% chance of David Shearer to depart as Leader of the Labour Party in 2012, while there's a 57% chance of David Shearer to depart as Leader of the Labour Party in 2013, and an 8% chance of David Shearer to depart as Leader of the Labour Party in 2014.

The fact that Shearer has even survived this long might be due to the lack of an obvious successor. It is clear that many of those writing on The Standard site favour Cunliffe - see, for example the post, Who could replace Shearer? Blogger Pete George also puts forward his (partially plausible) wishful thinking in the fictitious press release: Shearer standing down, Cunliffe to lead Labour. The idea of Cunliffe taking over from Shearer is certainly reflected in the current share trading on iPredict - there is apparently a 55% chance of David Cunliffe to be next Labour Party leader compared to a 26% chance of Grant Robertson to be next Labour Party leader.

David Farrar has some useful analysis on the likely factions in his post, Small says Labour leadership challenge in February if Shearer flops at conference. In particular, he says: 'If the new rules get put in place, and then in February 55% of caucus say they want a change, we'll see Cunliffe v Robertson for the leadership. Possible Little could stand also - not so much to win - but to become a powerbroker. The members seem to most support Cunliffe, the unions Little and the caucus Robertson. The union support can be delivered pretty much as a bloc, so Cunliffe and Robertson will need to make some pledges to the unions to gain the leadership'.

The question has to be asked as to whether David Shearer is just the scapegoat for more significant problems in the Labour Party. Few commentators or bloggers seriously seem to believe that all of the party's problems are really down to the one man.

Labour's problems relate to its confused identity and ideology. Shearer perhaps epitomises this, but he is hardly alone. The rest of the Labour caucus also have problems projecting a vision of how a Labour government would differ significantly from a National one. So, if Shearer was replaced by Cunliffe or Robertson, would Labour really be seen as a credible alternative to the current government? While there is a fair perception that David Shearer is unable to manage his caucus and that he has failed to look like a prime minister, could Robertson or Cunliffe really come up with or promote any compelling policies or sell Labour as something different to National?

A similar point is made by Lynn Prentice on The Standard in his post, Shuffle the caucus deck. He says that 'Somehow I don't think that a single speech is going to fix that. It is a structural problem with the caucus and the elevation of David Shearer to the leadership is more of a incidental symptom than being the problem'. Furthermore, he thinks it too 'optimistic that a simple leadership change can fix the underlying problem'

Labour's future ideological identity might also be partially decided by another decision the party has to make soon - whether to allow maverick ex-MP John Tamihere to rejoin - see Matthew Hooton's Tamihere decision will define Labour for generation.

Finally, for a visual summary see my blog post, The State of the Labour Party - some recent images.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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