No one in Labour can deny there’s a real issue with internal disunity. Not only is the caucus divided (and more than ever since the Shearer camp’s handling of the conference fallout), but there’s a major breach between the membership and the caucus. Unless this is fixed and we can get the party united we’re looking at another term in opposition after 2014.
The cause of the breach is widely known – members felt their voice was ignored when a group of MPs centred around Trevor Mallard, Grant Robertson, Phil Goff and Annette King went over the heads of the membership by putting a well-meaning but clearly out of his depth David Shearer into the leadership to shore up their own positions. The fact that Shearer’s failed to fire in the year he’s had in the job hasn’t exactly helped things either.
These problems haven’t gone away, and in fact they’ve got worse as the polls have flat-lined and elements of caucus have grown increasingly intolerant of dissent from within the party.
Increasingly, people are coming to the view that the only way to heal this rift and unify the party is for caucus to take the leadership issue out to the membership this February so we can put it to bed once and for all. That’s what the conference was about. We wanted to make sure we were never ignored again. Indeed, the specific vote to hold a special caucus vote using the 40% trigger this February was designed to ensure the membership finally got a say on the current leadership – either to endorse David Shearer properly or to put in place an alternative who had a real mandate.
We simply want our right to vote, and whatever the outcome is I believe that will settle it. For David Shearer there is a genuine risk here, that can’t be denied. If the vote did go ahead he’d have to show he has what it takes to win in 2014, which is only fair. It’s possible he might face challengers – it’s long been rumoured that Robertson is sharpening the knives behind his back, and it’s possible that Andrew Little would have a tilt. We also can’t rule out there being pressure from elements in the party for David Cunliffe to stand, despite his reluctance.
But in reality, if Shearer could show he was willing to give members a say by putting his leadership up for endorsement then I think he’d be rewarded for that and would likely emerge even stronger at the head of a united party. What loyal party member could not swing in behind his leadership if he’d been elected fairly by the caucus, the membership and the affiliates in a transparent and democratic process?
It seems clear from Shearer’s statements that his Wellington advisers will be telling him to push on through, ignore the party and pretend the conference never happened. But I’d like to think Labour MPs with conscience would remember that an undemocratic and unaccountable party is a weak party. As any good social democrat knows, democracy makes us stronger and more united – and that’s exactly what Labour needs at the moment.