What David Shearer needs to do next

Why almost losing the Labour leadership may have been a gift to David Shearer and the tasks he must confront in the next three months if he's to be more than a lame duck

So David Shearer has bought himself three months to establish his credentials as a leader who can, if not win, at least help ensure that National loses the 2014 election. Three months to put some runs on the board and impress his party by impressing the wider public. Three months to perform significantly better than he has for the past 12.

So what's he got to do? First, find an authentic voice. Many have already said that his problem is delivery. But that's only partly true. Shearer lacks presentation skills. He's a poor speaker and has a discursive and curious mind that does not serve him well on the fly. Put him in front of a questioning journalist and you can see the cogs whirring, which is a turn-off for voters. 

Yet his bigger problem is not how he says something, but having something to say. Shearer is yet to draw the outlines of a Shearer-led Labour Party, let alone add the colour. As I said on Sunday, his conference speech could have come from any Labour MP. Over the past year he hasn't given any sense of what he stands for as a man or as a leader outside of generic Labour platitudes.

I'm not convinced that's his fault; it could be the advice from those around him. Phil Goff wasted the first two years of his leadership trying to keep his powder dry for an election campaign. It was a daft strategy then and is even dafter now. The theory seems to be that voters don't really tune in until late in the game and they want the wham-kapow policies then.

Except that by then it's too late. You've got to earn voters' attention and respect over time, even if they're only keeping half an eye on you, and build a distinct brand.

Labour we now know stands for a capital gains tax, raising the age of super, more (mostly unspecified) state intervention, R&D tax credits, not doing whatever National's doing in education. That's the sort of list many could come up with off-the-cuff. Restoring contributions to the super fund, a tax-free zone and extending in-work tax credits to beneficiaries seem to have been dumped, but we now have food in schools and 100,000 new homes. Oh, and Shearer seems to care about education. Somehow.

If most New Zealanders know more about what Labour stands for than that, I'd be amazed. In fact I suspect I'm being pretty generous. The thing that keeps striking me is that none of those policies have Shearer's mark on them.

Some of the anger within the party towards Shearer seems to stem from the impression he's not left-wing enough. But frankly, who'd know? Not voters.

Shearer in his Sunday speech repeatedly stressed the importance of an interventionist government. That was, I guess, a message to the party to say 'look, I can be as left-wing as Cunliffe'. But his message to the wider public has been rhetoric and complaint with little substance. For a start he needs to stop saying that the public expect him to "take it to National". His party might but the public don't. They expect him to look like a Prime Minister-in-waiting with some tangible ideas for making their lives that much easier.

I suspect voters know two things about him. He's a poor speaker and he's a likeable bloke who plays guitar. So there's a lot of work for him to do in the next three months.

I tend to think people can learn most things, so I'm sure his speaking can improve. Eventually. But another thing he needs to do, in the short-term, is find a way to compensate for his weaknesses. It took Helen Clark some time, but she did it with a remarkable intellect, a ferocious work ethic and a determination to get round the country and use her one-on-one people skills to make up for her struggles on television. Labour needs to find Shearer's compensatory skills and deploy them quickly.

The party and his advisors don't seem to have figured out what to do with him yet. I recall a year ago the excitement in the party that they'd found someone who could be their own John Key – affable, real, post-political. Despite the obvious concerns (expressed at the time) that politics moves in cycles and you usually need to beat someone by offering a different set of skills (Key's affability compared to Clark's authority), it always seemed a shallow analysis. There was excitement within Labour that at last they had a real New Zealander, someone who could strum guitar and be on the cover of a surfing magazine that real New Zealanders might read.

These people seemed to forget that he also had to convince voters he could run the country; he needed something concrete and distinct to offer voters.

So far we've had breafast in schools and new homes for 100,000 families. It's a start.

The other doubt hanging over him is how badly we really wants this – the power, the responsibility, the country's endorsement. He was almost an accidental leader, given the ABC crowd and the consensus Grant Robertson's not ready. It all fell into his lap.

He rather charmingly talked of offering a different style of politics. Which was decent, but left you wondering whether he had the hunger and the willingness to keep walking through the swamp when he was forced into rough terrain.

Well he's been pushed into that swamp now, as much by his supporters as by his detractors. And the grim face he presented today left me with the impression that he really wants this. He may be new to all this, but it seems to be hardening his resolve.

This manufactured challenge may have been a gift for him; a time to hone his steel and test his conviction. Because above all, that's what he's lacked thus far and that's what he's got to dig up. Conviction. A strong sense of himself, what he stands for and his determination to go after it.

As the song says, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's [almost] gone". I get the sense that the risk of losing the leadership has helped Shearer realise that he wants to keep it.

So the real challenge for him over the months of summer comes not from Cunliffe, but from within. Has he decided he wants to fight for this and can he harness his undoubted abilities to compensate for his weaknesses? Can he now grow quickly into the job and show voters what he's made of? And in doing so can he win over a clearly skeptical party?

We should have a good idea before the BBQs are packed away and the leaves start to change colour.