Just short of his first anniversary as leader, David Shearer delivers his first speech to a Labour Party conference next week.
But as storm clouds gather over his leadership, it is shaping as possibly his last.
Members, activists and unionists contacted for this article said over and over that the speech at the Ellerslie racecourse conference centre next Sunday was crucial to Shearer’s grip on the leadership.
His first priority is to convince the party rank and file that “he has what it takes” – and those grassroots members will be looking for a hard-hitting address taking the fight to the Government while outlining a clear and personal view of where he intends to take Labour.
Unless he can carry that off, the groundswell in the party is set to break into the open with a push for a leadership challenge, most likely when the caucus meets in February – or even sooner, according to one business lobbyist in close contact with the party.
That’s a big call.
Personally I think Shearer will do fine at the conference, which will subdue the talk. I’ve seen him do speeches, and he has few problems there. His weakness is press conferences and interviews, which are a very different challenge.
According to a senior MP, who backed Shearer in last year’s leadership vote, most inside Labour are withholding judgment until they see his performance at the conference.
But there is wide agreement Labour and Shearer will not be able to avoid a focus on his performance, not least because key business at the Ellerslie conference centre includes a revamp of party rules.
At issue is how candidates are chosen and ranked on the list – a potentiality explosive matter inside the party given the power of its union and sector group blocks.
But delegates will also vote to give unions and members a say in leadership votes. That has previously been the sole preserve of MPs in the caucus.
The draft proposal would require a two-thirds majority of MPs to trigger a leadership vote – a move that would be seen as entrenching the leader between general elections.
A rival option – to put the leadership to a vote if 40 per cent of MPs call for it – is seen as too destabilising and the party is likely to settle on the compromise of a 55 per cent threshold.
40% is too low and 67% too high, so the compromise looks sensible.
If the new rules get put in place, and then in February 55% of caucus say they want a change, we’ll see Cunliffe v Robertson for the leadership. Possible Little could stand also – not so much to win – but to become a powerbroker.
The members seem to most support Cunliffe, the unions Little and the caucus Robertson. The union support can be delivered pretty much as a bloc, so Cunliffe and Robertson will need to make some pledges to the unions to gain the leadership.