The Cunliffe factor

by Jane Clifton / 27 November, 2012
Labour’s tribulations are mainly serving the cause of National.
Political cartoon by Chris Slane

Aspects of the David Cunliffe disloyalty debacle in the Labour Party are like the sort of neurological curiosities you read about in Oliver Sacks’s wonderful books. Just as a person might wake up one day convinced his wife is an impostor or, worse, a hat, members of the Labour rank and file have conceived a fervent conviction that most of their caucus has been bodysnatched. Quite how the Cunliffe lobby explains this phenomenon would be fascinating for a psychologist. One deadpan explanation being offered is that the media – pro-National to a man and woman – have somehow influenced Labour MPs to behave against their own interests.

Alternatively, these Stepford MPs may be replicas substituted by aliens. They may even be sleeper agents for the Republican Tea Party. It’s like a mass cognitive malfunction. The concept of a “renegade caucus”, one that less than a year ago was elected chiefly because local party members selected and ranked them, is gloriously far-fetched. Inside a few months, the same individuals whom the party – and, more importantly, the country’s left-supporting voters – elected in our democratic, proportional system, have become enemies of the Labour Party. This writer recently compiled a tongue-in-cheek list, The Official Enemies of the Labour Party, for the Listener’s blog. Top of the list was David Shearer, the leader of the Labour Party; next was his deputy, Grant Robertson; then pretty much the entire shadow cabinet; and on down. Their sin: either not being David Cunliffe or not supporting David Cunliffe for leader.

As it turns out, my mistake was in thinking I was being satirical, for accompanying this Stepford MP delusion is the almost religious belief that Cunliffe has an arsenal of policies superior to those the caucus is promulgating. Having read his recent speeches and listened to him in Parliament, I’m impressed, but I’m unable to make out what these alternative policies might be. There’s no disputing he has a superior command of rhetoric and is a stellar debating performer compared with the bumbling Shearer. But he has not uttered a word of alternative policy or strategy – unless perhaps by a dog-whistle so high-pitched that only those in a serious state of left-wing anxiety can hear it. Cunliffe has made himself a sort of magical blank canvas onto which Labour supporters can project their heart’s desire.


Still, there’s no doubt Labour has big problems, and not just because of the excoriating toll of these leadership ructions. The headline message from the conference last weekend was that the party membership is somewhat to the left of the caucus. Some of this is down to the rejoining of some old Alliance/NewLabour waka-jumpers who, rather like those Japanese soldiers found hiding out in caves after World War II, are still fighting the battle of Rogernomics. But with the stunning exception of the remit to ditch the monarchy, delegates debated and approved a slew of solidly left-wing progressive liberal policy remits, and were quite rude to dissenters. One member was booed for questioning a proposal for electorate officials to be evenly split as to gender, on the grounds that as there were three officials a 50-50 split wasn’t possible.

Again, this is quite a conundrum. The caucus is there as a direct result of the choices of the party grass roots, albeit with, shall we say, generous input from both unions and affiliates and the party head office. But it is also there because of the exponentially more important views of the voting public. Even allowing for some cranky views out there about MMP and the party-list system, these people have been democratically elected, with the active connivance of the grass roots.

To say, as some on the left now do with great bitterness, that a majority of these MPs are traitors is a remarkable turnaround in sentiment. To sit through any Labour MP’s speech in Parliament is to hear what sounds like very cunningly faked fidelity to left-wing ideals. Try to mount a case that Shearer supporters such as Maryan Street, Darien Fenton and Grant Robertson are somehow dragging the party toward the right, and, to reprise something David Lange once said of John Banks’s mental acuity, you’d better take care never to find yourself in a room with two doctors at the same time, particularly if one of them has a Biro.


However, the disjuncture between party and caucus opinion is real, and not easily resolved. Cunliffe is its lightning rod. As directed by the party, in a clear attempt to force a change of leadership, the caucus must now re-ballot Shearer’s job in February. And he needs to get at least 60% support, or the leadership goes to a party-wide vote, with a 40% rank-and-file vote, 20% union affiliates’ vote and the caucus’ preference diluted to 40% under the new rules. Cunliffe would probably ace the wider vote, but in a perversity that must drive party members to distraction – and this is the essence of the whole situation – he will struggle to get even 40% support of his own MP colleagues. He would have been lucky to summon eight votes this week had he pressed his suit. Even some of those who voted for him in the post-election contest have developed reservations.

It’s hard to convey what it is about this super-bright, urbane and forceful politician that has proven so divisive. He has certainly convinced the far left that he is one of them. However, he hasn’t convinced many of those who have actually worked with him. This includes former colleagues in Foreign Affairs, who saw his 1999 candidacy for Labour as careerist, surprised as they were that it was for Labour. His lack of people skills is not a new thing, either. One former colleague, who nonetheless found his work excellent, went so far as to describe him as having been “egregious”.

Caucus colleagues say he has behaved selfishly and disloyally both to Phil Goff and to Shearer. His MP supporters deny this. But, without wishing to be unkind, they comprise very much the B-team. He promised a slew of underperforming, dysfunctional and/or ill-favoured MPs preferment if they voted for him in the post-election ballot. Choosing as his deputy running mate Nanaia Mahuta, a smart and talented MP who has consistently failed to fire, was seen as a monumentally cynical play of the woman and the Maori cards.

A further non sequitur has been the characterising of the Cunliffe demotion as an evil triumph of the “old guard”. Labour is a bit top-heavy with long-serving MPs, some of whom have, as the deadwood coding goes, Made Their Contribution. But it’s a funny old guard that includes the likes of Chris Hipkins, 34, Jacinda Ardern, 36, and Grant Robertson, 41, all elected only in 2008.

A Cunliffe-led caucus would likely have to proceed without new talent like this in big contributing roles. This is nose-to-spite-face stuff, but that’s how strong the anti-Cunliffe feeling has become. A majority of his colleagues believe he would be bad for the party, even to the point of refusing to work with him. It’s impossible to reconcile this with the party’s seemingly equally fervent belief that Cunliffe would be good for the party. But one thing’s for sure: National will be devoting much colourful rhetoric toward forcing a reconciliation. The real winner of the caucus’s last ballot was John Key.
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