Over the last few weeks Labour has been in a state of agitation as the party, the affiliates and even the caucus have come to the realisation that the Shearer project has failed.
This new realisation has been marked by the emergence of leaks from unusual sources, a fragmentation of the already loose factions in caucus and a spike in feverish late night phone calls as people try to position themselves for a post-Shearer Labour Party.
Talk of an imminent coup is probably premature, but should not be ruled out. There is a level of disquiet in the party not seen since the Moore-Clark battle of the early 1990s.
It is now almost impossible to find anyone in Labour who, when speaking on condition of trust, will admit to supporting David Shearer staying in the job. MPs are still giving media the pro forma “I support the leader of the Labour Party” line while quietly plotting his demise. Party members are vocally wishing his downfall. And the union affiliates are getting restive as it becomes clear that keeping Shearer as leader will only deliver National another term in which to hammer the labour movement.
What little support he did have evaporated with his handling of the #manban. Party members are furious at his disregard for democracy. The women’s sector is calling for his blood. And caucus members are in disbelief that he ignored the issue for so long when he had all the documents and was on the committee, then handled it so badly once it broke.
Meanwhile, the press gallery has clearly turned on the leadership. The journos had gone easy on David Shearer for a long time – some because they wanted to give him a chance to develop, others because they’d invested so heavily in backing him back in 2011 and didn’t want to lose face. None of this holds now.
Labour’s leadership team haven’t helped the situation. The online attacks on Duncan Garner over the non-existent caucus letter have backfired terribly. Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins, Annette King and Trevor Mallard may well have had reason to feel aggrieved, but the decision to attack Garner’s credibility so publicly and so personally went down very badly with Garner’s friends in the media – of which he has many. The media now have little sympathy for the Labour leadership and the mood against Shearer is firming.
In some ways, the dissatisfaction over Shearer is nothing new. There’s been concern for some time, including among many who saw from the start that he didn’t have what it takes to lead the party. It wasn’t helped by the impression that he was imposed on the membership by members of caucus.
But after November there was a sense even among Shearer’s detractors that they should give him another chance. He was, after all, the only leader Labour had, and maybe if he did have just “a few more months” we’d start to see the improvements we’d been promised. Maybe the Government would inevitably become unpopular and Labour would start to make headway with the public.
None of this ever materialised. Eight months on from conference, Labour is still failing to connect with the public and is mired in the low 30s. Despite regular Government stuff ups and scandals, Labour seems unable to make headway. The public aren’t stupid, they can see there is something wrong in New Zealand but they don’t see a credible alternative in Labour. This frame now appears to be stuck.
It’s in this context that Labour has realised Shearer is finished. The leaks are merely a symptom of this. The man ban fiasco is but a catalyst. Each poll that shows Labour up half a point or down two points is irrelevant in the broader context.
This isn’t a rut that one good poll or a new policy launch will save us from.