Labour leader David Shearer was given a warm welcome - but delegates were slow to get to their feet to when he was introduced to give his opening address to the party's annual conference last night.

A standing ovation is usually automatic to welcome the leaders of political parties onto the stage at conferences - although there was applause, only about one third of the audience stood as Mr Shearer walked onstage after Labour MP and MC Jacinda Ardern introduced Mr Shearer as "the next Prime Minister of New Zealand".

The reaction indicates he has a way to go to win the party's membership over. They relented by the end of his speech and the majority stood to applaud. But it will be disappointing for Mr Shearer who needs to end the conference with a strong endorsement of his leadership following criticism in the lead up to it.

It is his first annual conference as leader, and he will give his main address on Sunday afternoon.


In his opening speech, he was optimistic and spoke with some passion, saying Labour had closed the gap in the polls with Labour and he was picking up on a growing dissatisfaction with National.

"I've never had a young person come up to me and say, 'when I grow up I want to be Leader of the Opposition'. And I don't blame them. Luckily I've only got two more years of this before I can lead the Labour Party into government."

His rival for the leadership last December, David Cunliffe, has a strong support base in Auckland and among party members so the failure to stand possibly reflects residual unhappiness among members at the result.

There will be 620 delegates at the conference, which party general secretary Tim Barnett said was the largest since 1988 and indicated a surge of interest in the party.

He said this conference was expected to be a more peaceful affair - 1988 was a time when significant rifts beset the party in the wake of Rogernomics. "Peace has broken out."

Party president Moira Coatsworth said there was a surge of interest in the party - and said the reforms the party delegates will vote on tomorrow "will set down a legacy for the next 100 years".

Those reforms followed a major review of the party organisation following last year's disastrous election result.

They include changes to the way the leader will be elected to give party members an equal vote to caucus members - each group will have 40 per cent of the vote and the affiliate groups will have 20 per cent.


The team that which undertook the review of Labour initially proposed allowing a post-election confidence vote on the leader and at other times requiring two-thirds of the caucus to sign a petition to force a challenge.

That would have given the incumbent a high level of protection.

But the party members are expected to vote for a lower threshold of between 50 to 55 per cent, making it much easier to overthrow a leader.

Party secretary Tim Barnett said he did not expect it to result in instability or a high churn rate of leaders. He doubted members and affiliated unions would club their vote together to force through a leader who was widely disliked by caucus.

That was considered an issue in the last leadership contest when David Cunliffe was seen by members perceived as being the favoured candidate by the membership.

The changes will also require leadership contestants to run an open campaign for the job, similar to the United States primaries. It is expected members will be able to vote either at meetings or by postal ballot.

Other speakers at the opening included Auckland Mayor Len Brown, who also spoke at the National Party's conference this year, University business studies Professor Nigel Haworth and outgoing Equal Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor.