After David Shearer's speech – is he a necessity or a nice-to-have?

It was the speech to save his leadership. Or condemn it. David Shearer stood before the party faithful and got a rousing reception on Sunday. But was a new vision unveiled?

David Shearer can start these crucial weeks in his leadership knowing that he did enough in his speech to Labour's annual conference. Enough to give himself a fighting chance. He had enough convincing moments to give the TV networks the grabs they need and enough zip to energise a hall of the faithful. What's more he did enough to give his allies something to spin and satsify a gallery pack – who have low expectations of his speeches – that he's got some fight left in him yet.

But therein lies the rub. Because if that's the best he's got, if that's a man fighting to save his political life, it's not going to be enough in the long run without significant improvement.

All the talk of the past week had made it clear – this was do or die for Shearer. David Cunliffe still backs himself for another shot at the leadership. Soon. And if it wasn't clear before the weekend, Cunliffe's refusal to endorse Shearer and his talk of welcoming an early vote to clear up "these issues" spelt it out in neon. There are only "issues" if Cunliffe wants the leadership for himself.

So the jumping off point this weekend past was that we had to see Shearer at his best, Shearer the visionary, Shearer as something more than a top bloke, Shearer – in his own words – as a bit of a mongrel.

So what did we get? From my point of view at the back of the room, we got clear evidence Shearer is still not a frontman. Much of this can be learnt, given time. And maybe the gallery folk are right to say he's improved. But it was pretty weak tea being served.

Shearer got better as he went along, but the speech overall was pedestrian and used too many cliches to tick too many boxes. His mannerisms were luke-warm, he didn't sell his three-point lists, when the opportunities to ab lib and connect with his audience came, he baulked. Conference speeches have a job to do, both with the party and the public, but surely we deserve more than the tired lines about can-do-give-it-a-go-Kiwis-backing-smart-businesses-so-that-everyone-gets-a-chance-like-I-did-growing-up.

In the name of all that is political, why would a leader facing an imminent challenge not put himself at the centre of his speech and his party. One lovely story about building a boat with his night school-attending father aside, he made the case for the party without making one for himself. He even ended on a rallying cry for a Labour victory in 2014... but not a Shearer-led Labour victory.

And surely a speech-writer with any nous wouldn't have served up the sort of lines that simply begged critics and opponents to turn them back on Shearer himself.

Shearer began saying "two paths lie before us". He was talking about the country, but it was an invitation consider about Labour's own dilemma. He spoke about "decline and constant struggle" and about another path, a path of change. Gun. Foot. Shoot.

It was fairly pointed out to me that John Key wasn't too impressive in his early speeches as leader. But then Key was up against a third-term government, not heading into a neck-and-neck race against a governing party with 45% voter support and with the task of persuading the electorate that the party with the most votes shouldn't get to govern.

So much for the theatre. How about the content? Did a bold new Shearer vision appear, as was being demanded by the columnists last week?

The high point naturally was the housing policy promising 100,000 new starter homes in ten years. The detail was light, but the argument is that it unleashes the power of capital investment by government without adding to our debt. It's a powerful message. It's in Labour's sweet spot. It works for individuals and the country. It creates jobs and homes, to necessities, not nice to haves. It appeals across generations.

Much of the rest of the speech was rhetoric and rehashings. Two moments stood out. Shearer's folk had gone back through the history of Labour and National governments and had discovered something. Average GDP growth under National has been 2.9%. Under Labour it's been 3.7%. Argue what you like about historical luck and length of time in power, but it's a full frontal attack on the public assumption that National is a better keeper of the books than Labour.

The other highlight was Shearer saying that most of the products New Zealand exports were known about before the industrial revolution. Amidst a parade of well-worn rhetorical soldiers, that point stood out like a newly minted medal.

At the heart of the speech was the idea that New Zealand needs "big change" because of National's mismanagement. Essentially, Shearer wanted to make the case for government intervention rather than laissez-faire economics.

Which would work if he was attacking the National party of Jenny Shipley or Don Brash. But John Key's party just isn't that hands-off.

Shearer railed against National's unwillingness to "do its bit" for the economy, without recognising that Bill English has run limited deficits to offer some stimulus and has resisted calls for him to go further down the free-market line. The two parties are only a year or two apart over when they'll return to surplus.

He pointed out that Norman Kirk's super scheme would have created a savings pool of over $200 billion by today if Muldoon hadn't smashed it, damning National's record on savings. Yet that fact is Labour has followed National's lead and given up on its previous policy to re-start contributions to the New Zealand Super Fund.

And he damned National for not understanding that the housing market has failed, even though just last month English said precisely that... that the property market "isn't working properly" and rising prices were "dangerous".

At least twice he promised "a new direction". But the housing policy was the only thing new. I like David Shearer. Just like Key, Cunliffe and everybody who meets him. I wanted to hear how his Labour party would be distinctive. I wanted to hear his own "new vision for New Zealand", as his wife promised in her introduction. I'm no clearer.

But I did come away with one thought firmly placed in my mind: National needs John Key to lead it. Labour doesn't need David Shearer.

That is arguably a strength for Labour, but a weakness for Shearer. That speech could have been given by any Labour MP. The policies it mapped out don't need Shearer to get them through. The vision is one from the party's heart, but lacks a personal touch.

Shearer did a great job for Labour today. He flew its flag proudly and launched one new big idea. But he did nothing for himself. Maybe that reflects a quality that lies at the heart of strong, ego-less leadership. Or maybe it's naive.

Yet in truth, all this has very little impact on who winds up in charge. That's a numbers game. At the last count Cunliffe lost because most of his fellow MPs don't seem to like him terribly much. But there's one thing that can make a politician Mr Popular in the school-yard – the whiff of victory.

Politicians, reasonably enough, want to win and govern. If Labour's MPs think Shearer can get them there, if they think this weekend's effort was enough, they'll prefer to back him because they like and respect him. But as Shearer said in his speech, two paths lie before them. And if they think Cunliffe's path leads to government, they'll suck up their personal issues and convince themselves they've always liked him really, deep down.

Whatever they decide, they need to act quickly if they want to win in 2014. National is struggling and this civil war is simply putting fragile voter support at risk and buying the government more time to steady its own ship.