Is David Shearer another Jim McLay?

All the talk about David Shearer being a failure after only a few weeks in the job must be concerning to Labour voters as well as to the man himself.

There are parallels between Mr Shearer's situation and that which Jim McLay faced when he became leader of the National Party in late 1984.

McLay replaced Robert Muldoon after the 1984 election when National lost heavily to Labour under David Lange.

McLay was supposed to be a breath of fresh air, a social and economic liberal who represented a decisive break with the socialist, war generation, conservative party of the controlled economy that Muldoon had created over the latter years of his reign.

Problem was that McLay couldn't articulate a direction that the voters, and National supporters in particular, found attractive or even interesting. Sound familiar? These are precisely the same criticism levelled at David Shearer.

Like Shearer, McLay made no impression in the opinion polls. He couldn't move National's standing and his own rating as preferred Prime Minister hovered around the margin of error.

He wasn't a bad man, or a bad politician, but in the climate of the time, he couldn't control his caucus and couldn't build the party's popularity either.

With 18 months of McLay taking over, his deputy Jim Bolger rolled him in caucus, and took over as leader. McLay became the only leader of either of the major political parties never to lead his party into a general election.

McLay was undermined by constant talk about his performance and about how he just didn't have the qualities to be leader. His reshuffle of responsibilities didn't work; Staff changes and new publicity strategies had no effect.

The same kind of talk about the same kind of issues is having the same effect on Shearer's leadership. Denials don't make the story go away while there are colleagues willing to talk to the media, thereby giving the story more oxygen.

None of this is to endorse or criticise Mr Shearer, the man or his team. Nor is it  to endorse the criticisms or the people making them. It is to say that when the whispering starts, it is difficult for leaders to quell the dissent other than by improving their performance.

Ask Helen Clark; she has faced down her party critics more than once. A delegation of MPs asked her to stand down as leader in 1996, and remember "the BBQ at Phil' Goff's place" where a coup was openly discussed when her stocks were low and the polls were against Labour in early 1999. She led Labour to victory later that year.

Shearer's only antidote to confidence sapping whispers is to up his game. Politicians regardless of party are power seeking individuals. They will follow the person who they think will lead them to victory. If not Shearer then someone will be given a turn - just as McLay was tolerated for a while and then booted out in favour of Jim Bolger, who eventually did get the election winning formula right.