One of the strangest coups in New Zealand’s political history is underway.
Both the polls and common sense suggest Labour leader David Shearer is on track to become prime minister in 2014.
If you doubt it, remember that John Key’s election in 2008 was incredibly tight.
He was then re-elected in 2011 by fewer than 10,000 votes, only because of Steven Joyce’s ultra-cautious approach and the big increase in National’s vote in Labour-leaning Christchurch, attributed to Gerry Brownlee’s management of the earthquake response.
It is implausible that Mr Key has held on to those 10,000 votes through all the pratfalls of 2012, including Hekia Parata’s poorly managed Christchurch school restructuring and the undeniable rise in unemployment of the last three quarters.
Even if National has held on to all its support, Labour needs less than 1% of the voters who stayed home in 2011 to back it in 2014 and New Zealand will wake up to a Labour/Green government.
In normal times, the leader of the opposition’s hold on his party’s leadership would be absolute and it would be the prime minister needing to worry about panicked backbenchers.
These are not normal times. Labour activists arrive at their annual conference this weekend seemingly determined to get rid of Mr Shearer.
The signs of a coup attempt are unmistakable.
All year, those close to challenger David Cunliffe have said privately that a coup would be mounted from November, to coincide with the conference.
Sure enough, the first November edition of The Listener carried a feature of Mr Cunliffe (albeit one in which the journalist, Guyon Espiner, savaged his subject for his vanity and pomposity).
Then, on Saturday, the Dominion-Post’s Vernon Small, perhaps the press gallery journalist with the best connections across the political left, wrote a feature called “Shearer's first conference speech may be his last.”
It led to a flurry of similar stories in other papers, all saying that Mr Shearer, hardly an orator, would have to give a blinder of a speech to survive – another line straight out of Team Cunliffe’s talking points.
On Monday, the Herald’s left-wing columnist, Tapu Misa, followed up, calling for Mr Shearer’s head, as did Helen Clark’s close friend Brian Edwards. On New Zealand’s most influential left-wing blog, thestandard.org.nz, at least three writers called time on Mr Shearer in the strongest terms.
No doubt, some of these news stories and blog posts were co-ordinated but it is not necessary to argue conspiracy – the coverage simply reflects the chattering of activists throughout the party.
They want Mr Shearer to go.
The question, as always, is who should replace him.
It is usually obvious within minutes of meeting a budding politician if they have the potential for greater things. Mr Key is the most recent example.
There are usually a couple in each party.
In National today, for example, it is obvious that only Judith Collins and then either Amy Adams or Simon Bridges have the potential to lead the post-Key party.
Labour lacks anyone with genuine star quality but Mr Cunliffe is the closest.
The New Lynn MP is undoubtedly the activists’ favourite, particularly in Auckland, but Mr Shearer’s Ephialtian deputy, Grant Robertson, is backed by the unions, the party’s Wellington-based apparatchiks and the parliamentary wing.
Some question whether Mr Robertson, being gay, could ever be elected prime minister, but more relevant than his private life is his professional one. He is a Wellington bureaucrat who moved from the UN to become deputy chief of staff in Ms Clark’s Beehive. Despite his relatively young years, Mr Robertson represents Labour’s past not its future.
Labour’s members want Mr Cunliffe to have a crack. As revealed in Mr Espiner’s Listener article, he may be pompous and vain but he would take the fight to Mr Key. On balance, he would be less risky for Labour than continuing with Mr Shearer.
It should be an easy decision. Labour could bumble along for the next few months with a divisive leadership battle, slowly bleeding support. Or it could just get on and cut Mr Shearer’s throat now.
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