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

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Labour's extraordinary conference

Labour leader David Shearer address party members during his speech at the Labour Party conference. Photo / Dean Purcell
Labour leader David Shearer address party members during his speech at the Labour Party conference. Photo / Dean Purcell

Bloodletting seems assured within the Labour Party, following a rather extraordinary annual conference. The possibility of a leadership coup by David Cunliffe was obviously the big news of the conference - finally confirming what was only ever rumoured and discussed in the blogosphere. There should be no doubt now that things are going to get messier. In the short term Cunliffe and his supporters have the most to fear, going on Duncan Garner's analysis and sources - see Cunliffe backs off, demotion imminent. But in the longer-term the blood spilt could well be from 'Camp Shearer'.

Shearer is about to act against Cunliffe, and probably feels he has to if he is to have any chance of surviving after a conference that has been described by various political journalists as 'a catastrophe, 'a train wreck of a conference', and 'a disaster'. Letting this current standoff fester until February is not an option. Shearer's best chance of survival is to act quickly and strongly.

He needs the equivalent of an internal Labour 'snap election', to be seen to put Cunliffe in his place and take away some of his power. The problem with punishing Cunliffe is that it will be seen by many members as punishing them, and as deeply unfair.

Despite Shearer's assertion that he will decide when his leadership gets put to the test, the reality is his options are limited. At the moment it appears that Cunliffe is tactically retreating - see James Henderson's post on The Standard - War and peace - which explains that the 'Mallard-led old guard' of the caucus 'thought they had found a procedural trick to embarrass Cunliffe' by bringing forward a leadership vote, but Cunliffe has simply sidestepped this by refusing 'to come out to be beaten up by them in a rigged game'. The latest on Cunliffe's stance can be seen in Kieran Campbell's Cunliffe backs Shearer as leadership crisis calms.

The best analysis, so far, is from Gordon Campbell who thinks the focus on the leadership struggle ignores more fundamental strategic issues for the party: 'It is all very well to talk about the need for unity, but a unity that merely wallpapers over the party's real divisions is simply a cosmetic job done for the benefit of the media, and it will not last. Either Labour has to choose to become a genuine party of the left again and contest the entire spectrum of centre left issues effectively with the Greens - or the party rank and file will need to fully and consciously embrace an MMP logic whereby a Shearer-led party positions itself deliberately in the fuzzy centre and willingly cedes the party's traditional ground to the Greens, with all of the patience and discipline that this will require. It can't do both things at once'. - see: On the Labour Party ructions.

It's also worth watching Patrick Gower's TV3 item about the conference and leadership issues - see: Shearer denies Labour leadership shakeup Shearer denies Labour leadership shakeup - 4-minute video. But does Gower go too far? Scott Yorke of Imperator Fish thinks so, and cleverly parodies him in A Day In The Life Of Patrick Gower. This raises the question of how well the media covered the conference, and Russell Brown covers this well in his post, Calling the race before it's over. And Martyn Bradbury also covered the conference wearing his 'media hat' and suggested some of the political journalists didn't really understand the party membership - see: Was Vernon Small at the same Labour Party Conference I was at?. Certainly the press gallery saw it as a disaster for both Labour and Shearer on Saturday - see Tracy Watkins' Angry vote damns Shearer and Vernon Small's Labour may have pushed Shearer off a cliff. John Armstrong says that the weekend's 'mayhem' showed an incredible divide and self-destructiveness within the party: 'Labour has not argued in such public fashion since the party's internal schism over Rogernomics in the late 1980s' - see: Labour has lessons for lemmings on self-destruction.

Most of the members actually doing the voting and talking had quite a different view. For them it was an unusually democratic and meaningful conference, in stark contrast to the stage-managed affairs which serve merely as platforms for the leadership. It is clear that the party has modernised and democratised, asserting itself 30 years after being sidelined by Rogernomics. It's almost as if the party membership took Chris Trotter's column on Friday to heart - see: Labour gets chance to reinvent democracy. Danyl Mclauchlan says that the assertion by the membership at the weekend has been a long time coming, and there's significant unhappiness within the party with the performance and quality of their parliamentarians - see: Labour leadership open thread. See also The Standard's Pushing at an open door.

Longer term this may be far more of a problem for Shearer than David Cunliffe, as Tracy Watkins observes: 'The conference also laid bare the growing distance between the wider party and the caucus, and particularly the direction Mr Shearer is seeking to take it, toward the political centre' - see: Labour falls into line as Shearer bares his teeth.

Shearer's keynote conference speech has been well received by most - see, for example Toby Manhire's Labour conference 2012: David Shearer's speech, the verdict. But not all are so enamoured. Tim Watkin has put together an excellent analysis of the speech and its shortcomings in his blogpost, After David Shearer's speech - is he a necessity or a nice-to-have?. Watkins says that although Shearer's effort was pretty good in parts, 'the speech overall was pedestrian and used too many cliches to tick too many boxes. His mannerisms were luke-warm, he didn't sell his three-point lists, when the opportunities to ad lib and connect with his audience came, he baulked'. Watkins also makes an important point: amidst all the maneuvering, number crunching and ideological debate 'there's one thing that can make a politician Mr Popular in the school-yard - the whiff of victory.' The polls, in the end, will probably decide which David leads Labour into the next election.

Shearer clearly moved leftwards in his conference speech, obviously playing to his audience, but also responding to the need to see off Cunliffe as a challenger from the left. The main policy announcement - a housing construction programme - was evidence of this. It is, of course, typical of Shearer and modern Labour and a classic 'third way' policy. It's not about increasing social housing - not about state house building, which is desperately needed - instead it's about underwriting the private sector to produce a mass of low-cost housing to sell to the public. In line with the concept of SOEs, such a measure wouldn't be any sort of socialism - or even social democracy - but instead a pro-market intervention on market terms. Shearer kept emphasising that a Labour government wouldn't actually spend more on social housing, but just provide the money to underwrite the production of housing aimed at a gap in the market rather than a replacement of the market.

The housing policy will be popular and will resonate with many but will still be criticised from both the right and the left. The most succinct from a left perspective is from none other than David Farrar - see: Why the left should be against Labour's housing policy. From his more usual perspective, Farrar calculates some ballpark figures for the scheme and concludes that 'This is the biggest bribe since Think Big' - see: Labour's housing plans - houses for everyone.

The end result of the weekend may be contradictory. Shearer has probably ended up in a stronger position, both as a result of his speech and willingness to confront Cunliffe head on, but it has also confirmed (and accelerated) a major divide within Labour.

Finally, the Listener's David White - surely New Zealand's best news photographer - has a selection of photos from Labour's conference here: In pictures: Labour party conference 2012. For cartoons and other images of Labour from the last few days, see my blogpost Images of Labour's current challenges.

- NZ Herald

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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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