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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Performance at conference could decide leader's fate

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Labour officials advise party activists to not panic as political blogs called for David Shearer's stepping down as Labour leader. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour officials advise party activists to not panic as political blogs called for David Shearer's stepping down as Labour leader. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Don't panic" was the sage advice of one former long-serving, high-ranking Labour Party official to party activists as left-leaning political blogs ran red hot yesterday with calls for David Shearer to step down as Labour's leader.

Writing on The Standard site, Mike Smith, who was Labour's general secretary between 2001 until 2009, said demands for Shearer to quit ahead of Labour's annual conference this coming weekend were "very destructive of a very good organisation".

Smith is correct in saying panic is hardly conducive to good decision-making. As for destructive, it will take only a few murmurings or mutterings of disloyalty from one or two delegates during open sessions to wreck Shearer's conference.

He is already on notice that he must deliver a real whopper of a speech in terms of impact - one that reverberates far beyond the Ellerslie Convention Centre, the conference's venue.

The difficulty in accepting Smith's analysis is that the postings' pessimism about Shearer's chances of making the grade as leader sound less like panic and more like reasoned and considered discourse between party members.

Whether or not the outpourings are being orchestrated by unhappy sects on the party's left, it all adds up as a collective attempt to destabilise Shearer's leadership.

The big question now is whether yesterday's frenzied blog activity is a one-off expression of that frustration and the number of such postings now ebbs away. Or whether the pressure further builds on Shearer in the lead-up to the conference's opening session on Friday.

No political party can afford to have its actions and behaviour determined by what the blogs are saying. But nor can a party totally ignore them, especially as in this case the frustration is clearly sapping morale.

Smith's argument is that relatively new Labour leaders in Britain and Australia - ones who were quickly written off as losers - have drastically turned their parties' fortunes around within the past 12 months thanks to some powerful speeches which connected with voters.

Shearer has yet to celebrate 12 months in the job - if "celebrate" is the right word. This weekend's conference is his first as leader. He should be given that opportunity to prove his critics wrong.

If he fails, there is still plenty of time before the 2014 election for the party to decide whether he stays or goes.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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