OPINION: Leaderless Labour already hurting National
Labour leader David Shearer resigned last week prompting a three-horse race to fill the void (Simon Wong/ 3 News)
Labour has no leader but is already doing much better against National than it was.
It's making National nervous – and so it should.
As soon as I saw Steven Joyce spinning wildly last week that "we thought David Shearer was the best leader they had so we're pleased," I knew his and John Key's knees were knocking more than they have for the past four-and-a-half years.
Because that's just not true - Joyce and Key wanted Shearer to stay where he was; they simply didn't rate him and expected to beat Labour while he was in charge.
So a new Labour leader was always a risk for Key.
It is the fear of the unknown.
Key's worry is the new leader will get a honeymoon – and unlike Shearer, he may not waste it.
The list of positives for the new leader (negative for National) go like this:
- Poll ratings aren't disastrous
- Major policy settings are good
- Three weeks to connect with party and public
- Honeymoon to come
- Big speech at Labour conference
- By-election in safeish seat (Christchurch East)
- Summer break
- Then comes election year.
Labour's poll ratings did not drop that far under Shearer – they have hung in there in the 30s.
So there is a base for the new leader to work from. With the Greens they are still in touching distance.
And Labour's leadership contest will now give it momentum like it's never had before.
It is already giving Labour's candidates a platform to work from.
It is already letting Labour get its positive messages out there.
It has let Labour take the agenda off National - even if just for a news cycle or two. It is giving Labour some much needed cut-through.
Sure, it may get a bit messy.
But ultimately, I think the contest will end up with a feel-good factor, particularly given it is the first time it's happening.
David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson are good communicators; they will keep it clean.
The addition of Shane Jones now gives the race an x-factor and something different. Sure Labour's women hate his guts, but Jones will give those outside of Labour's hardcore a reason to be interested in the race.
It could actually end up galvanising the party and the Caucus behind the new leader.
Just look at Chris Hipkins – saying in November last year Cunliffe was untrustworthy, yesterday telling me he would work for him.
Sure Hipkins is just trying to save his own skin, but it goes to show the direction Labour can move in.
The timing is perfect for a new leader too.
The general election is a year away.
The new leader has three weeks of unprecedented profile building in the leadership contest.
Then, once chosen, the honeymoon technically begins.
A chance for new senior staff, a Caucus reshuffle, maybe kill off an idea or two and showcase his wares around Parliament up against Key.
Then there are five weeks until Labour's November conference - the ultimate platform for any leader.
Given the party would have exercised its democratic right, the new leader can expect a rip-roaring welcome. It will be much different to the Cunliffe challenge against Shearer last year, or the welcome that Shearer would have got if he fronted this year.
Then comes the Christchurch East by-election. It will be tough – but the odds are stacked for Labour.
Another great platform and chance for early success.
Then the punters all go away for Christmas break having had a good chance to assess the new leader. Different again to when Shearer got the job in late 2011 before having a chance to make an impact.
That will give the new leader a chance to come back fresh in 2014.
Then the hard work begins. The new leader may still fail miserably against Key.
Then Labour would have to go through this contest all over again. That time it could be divisive.
But that is a long way away right now.
Right now a leaderless Labour is doing better against National than before.
If Labour improves just a bit with the new leader in place – it is right back in it.