Twice this year we have seen Labour leaders turn around perceptions of them and their party with one speech. Ed Miliband did it at the Labour Party conference in Manchester in early November. Julia Gillard did it in the Australian parliament in October.
A year ago both leaders were considered total losers by many in their own party and by most pundits. Their Conservative and Liberal opponents thought they were riding high to inevitable victory at the next election.
In Australia, everybody had completely written off Labor’s chances in 2013. The ALP’s primary vote had dropped to the twenties. Julia Gillard had to withstand a challenge from Kevin Rudd, after a long campaign of white-anting in the caucus and attack from Labor strategists such as Bruce Hawker. The Murdoch-owned Australian sustained a long personal campaign against her, led by senior editor Paul Kelly.
In Britain, Blairites and David Miliband supporters were proclaiming in late 2011 “Ed Miliband is not a popular Labour leader.” Immediately prior to his Conference speech, the Conservatives were totally confident in victory at the next election despite the fact that they were currently behind in the polls because “we’ve got David, they’ve got Ed.”
Look at the situation now. In Australia, the ALP briefly led the Liberals on the two-party preferred vote, and are still within striking distance. Gillard leads Abbott as preferred Prime Minister. Instead of Gillard being the leader under threat, the blowtorch has been turned onto Abbott. In Britain, Miliband is now written up as ruling the Commons. Cameron was completely and utterly upstaged at the Conservative conference by Boris Johnson.
A year ago in both Australia and Britain you would have got very long odds on Gillard or Miliband’s survival. Now it is Abbott and Cameron who are under threat.
Harold Wilson’s famous dictum that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, and David Lange’s equally famous comment about the “reef fish” in the Press Gallery come to mind. The Canberra Press Gallery was unanimously dismissive of Gillard’s speech, but it went viral on You-Tube.
Criticisms of Shearer on this site and others seem to come down to these. He’s not Helen Clark, who was master of every portfolio. True, but neither is Key. He lacks fluency, is not a good communicator. True, but so was Helen Clark before she sought and obtained media training. He doesn’t have the relentless negativity of a Leader of the Opposition. True; that was Goff’s strategy, and it wasn’t a good one.
Scott Yorke at least gives Shearer till after the Labour Party conference, and so do I. There is no doubt it will be important for him, and for Labour. The good news is that the spotlight will be definitely on Shearer. Miliband and Gillard show hitherto derided leaders can step up, and that one performance can make a huge difference to theirs and their party’s prospects.
I think that calling for David Shearer’s head now, in the week before the Labour party conference, is a sign of panic. Panic doesn’t make for good decisions.
It is also very destructive of good organisation, which will be the other focus of the conference, and arguably the more important.