Will there be a Labour leadership coup?

by Jane Clifton / 25 August, 2012
Online opinion calls for a Labour leadership coup, but why bother?
Labour leadership coup - cartoon by Chris Slane


Call it lack of discipline, desperation, recreational bitchiness, but a most unfortunate psychological affliction has beset the Labour Party and some supporters. Let’s call it Chris Carter Syndrome. You want your old life back, preferably your old office, desk and junket schedule, but the polls aren’t reassuring. You panic. You cast around for someone to blame, and naturally you alight on the leader. You vent to like-minded colleagues, who naturally agree: “Yeah, he’s bloody hopeless.”

All very therapeutic. But not therapeutic enough. Then it occurs to you that only you have the wit and the courage to kick things along a bit … Next thing, you’re in Kabul under armed guard. Thanks to variants of this restless frustration, a single blog item stating the well-known fact that a lot of Labour MPs dislike their senior colleague and unsuccessful leadership candidate David Cunliffe has morphed into a free-for-all bun fight, advertising the party as somewhat less than Beehive-ready. Who to blame? The unnamed senior MPs who talked to TV3’s Duncan Garner about what a pain Cunliffe was? Garner for asking the perfectly fair question: why do so many colleagues dislike Cunliffe? Cunliffe, for being insufficiently charming?

Actually, this little eddy of unsourced acrimony was bog standard, and certainly blog standard. What did the damage was the reaction on the blogosphere. Left-wing blog the Standard copped hundreds of comments deploring the perfidy of those who had dared to speak against Cunliffe. Twitter crackled with indignation. On day two, a prominent leftist blogger declared this the last straw, saying he was finished with the Labour Party. Others, too, threw their toys out of the cot and said they were never ever talking to that beastly Labour Party ever again, so there. By day three, a distinctly Stalinist mood had taken hold. Bloggers and their followers were demanding the heads of those who had talked to Garner. Suspects were named and tried in absentia and found definitely guilty. They were to be ritually shamed, demoted, expelled, even flogged. Kabul was too good for them.

By about day four, most leading leftist bloggers had refreshed their case for replacing David Shearer with the allegedly charm-deficient Cunliffe, and propounded their theories that Shearer is really a Tory. Much was made of Shearer’s speech anecdote about a sickness beneficiary whose neighbour was annoyed that he was able to shin up and down to fi x his roof. Shearer didn’t think benefit fraud was fair, either. This made him a dog-whistle beneficiary-basher. It’s possible the only things preventing the cyber-furies from descending on Parliament in temporal form with pitchforks by day five to lay about the caucus and install their man were that a) Parliament wasn’t sitting, b) Cunliffe was on an overseas holiday, and c) while they were out, they might have missed seeing our Olympic team winning another medal. For a party that could even now – on the poll numbers – form the next Government, this is a serious and puzzling rift to be so assiduously maintaining halfway through its second term in Opposition. This row has made it look as though the caucus and the party are hopelessly split. It has certainly reawakened coup talk and crowded other more positive messages from and about Labour off the news agenda.

Admittedly, the blogosphere is just a tiny proportion of voterdom. But it has become, like Parliament’s debating chamber, a potent crucible for mood-setting. As with those incessant online and text polls the media runs, there is no maths, or science, or, very often, even logic involved in what comes out of it, but there is definitely influence. The message you have to take from the week’s blog storm is that some – possibly quite a few – Labour supporters are impatient with Shearer’s low-impact approach, and believe Cunliffe is their saviour. That Cunliffe is disliked by a sizeable portion of the caucus – who have worked up close with him – simply means, to these dissatisfied supporters, that it’s long-overdue time certain Labour MPs were pensioned off, with extreme prejudice if possible. As to what Cunliffe offers that Shearer does not, the message from the grumpies is less distinct. They have inferred from Cunliffe’s speeches that he is true left, and from Shearer’s that he is not. But Cunliffe’s orations have been all rhetoric and no policy detail. And Shearer, although hazarding the odd detail on pensions, foreign land sales and the like, has scarcely been more explicit. Cunliffe is certainly a more effective speaker than Shearer. Ahem … most people are. But is this the time to back form over content?

There are several vital things voters simply don’t know. The most important is, what does Labour stand for? The blogerati has decided Shearer is moving the party towards the right, but there’s just not enough evidence – unless you count deploring benefit fraud. Voters don’t know what Shearer stands for as distinct from what Cunliffe stands for. And they’re probably more interested in what Labour stands for as distinct from what National stands for, anyway. They also don’t know how Labour and the Greens will fit together in government. It seems likely Green economic policy will be further left than Labour’s. But that’s unclear. And then there’s the more ephemeral but extremely influential matter of how Shearer will stack up in one-on-one contests with John Key. We’ve already seen glimpses in Parliament of Key’s smart-aleckry palling alongside Shearer’s artless earnestness. Would cocksure Cunliffe be a better foil? Or, while we’re at it, should we be trying on other prospective leaders for size? Grant Robertson, Andrew Little, Jacinda Ardern? There’s even been a call to bring back Phil Goff. And Shearer, relying as ever on the law of unintended consequences, was so cross about the week’s fiasco that he for once seemed quite macho and leader-like as he administered biffs on his way into this week’s caucus meeting.

With Valerie Adams’s new gold medal still top of mind, one journalist even wondered aloud if this personality change merited a doping inquiry. So, after all this chest-beating, will there be a coup? There’s still time between now and November when the party is due to adopt a much more complicated procedure for leadership changes. One struggles to decode the only portent, Cunliffe’s sudden lack of a beard. His explanation was that he “forgot to stop shaving” one day. A man who could forget to stop shaving might also forget to stop counting. The silliest thing about this is that Labour at least has succession options. Cunliffe, Robertson, Little, Goff again, and down the track Ardern and newcomer David Clark, could all be imagined as party leaders. National’s the party with problems there. Steven Joyce might seem the obvious successor to John Key, as he runs everything that isn’t nailed down. But despite his high profile, he is barely a household name. Judith Collins has undoubted dominatrix appeal, but would be intensely polarising. After those two, the cupboard is bare.

And time may be running out. The Mr Spray and Walk Away nickname has stuck to John Key because, temperamentally, he has made it no secret, he’s in politics for a good time, not a long time. The deathless speculation that his tenure in the job is self-limiting, and that he may not even be up for a third term as PM, should be focusing Labour’s fevered minds elsewhere than on its own entrails. Although, Crusher versus Cunliffe would be quite a grudge match.
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