Is there a way back for Labour?

This was the heading on an article I wrote shortly after the 2008 election. It is still relevant today and that is a commentary in itself on what the Labour Party has and hasn't done in the last three years.

David Shearer, who is now the new leader, agrees with his opponent David Cunliffe on one very important thing: the party in future cannot be the party it was in the past.

Cynics will say that Labour's MPs have finally realised that the Helen Clark era is over; they have finally rejected what the country rejected three years ago, and again in 2011.

Shearer is a clean break from the past, although he lacks experience in Parliament. He looks like a six year investment, as it will take time to shape a new team and find serious weaknesses in National.

Back in 2008, I said that Labour needed to achieve three things to get back into government. One was that things had to go badly wrong economically and socially and these things had to be seen as National's fault. That didn't happen.

Secondly I said that Labour had to re connect with its working class base, which is socially conservative and doesn't take kindly to being constantly told what was good for them. That didn't happen either. Often in 2008 and 2011 Labour won the seat but lost the party vote. Voters were picking an MP they liked personally, but rejecting the party's approach overall.

Thirdly Labour and the Greens had to find ways of growing the combined centre-left vote rather than taking votes off each other. That didn't happen, and in fact, the Labour vote has splintered still further.

The Greens and New Zealand First were the big winners there. As many commentators have pointed out in this election the combined centre left vote was almost equal to the combined centre right vote. John Key does not govern by very much.

In practical terms Shearer's challenge boils down to three things: firstly, getting Labour's voters back from National - not easy while Key is there, seen to be performing well and reflecting New Zealanders' values better than Labour does.

Secondly he has to cut into the New Zealand First voting base, by showing that Labour is an effective and realistic alternative to National and can win in 2014. That would marginalise NZF. Again not an easy task while the old tusker Winston is there.

Finally he still needs to find a way of getting along with the Greens, who desperately want power and in the cities look like the new urban cool. If the Greens cement a niche as the party of the young, go ahead professionals and social liberals, then that's another voting segment that has traditionally favoured Labour gone west. 

Finally they may be able to reclaim ground in Maoridom, but both Mana and the Maori Party are keenly contesting that territory.

So good luck David Shearer, you will need it.