Jane Clifton: a tale of two snapper

by Jane Clifton / 23 August, 2013
The party almost certainly favours David Cunliffe; a majority of the caucus would rather serve under Quade Cooper.
Depending on who wins the now-vacant Labour leadership, we will know where to find those two rather noisome snapper David Shearer brought to Parliament this week.

One’ll be nailed under a floorboard and the other tucked into a curtain hem in the leaders’ office in the time-honoured welcome from one who has vacated the premises unwillingly.

David Shearer, by Chris Slane

And it was unwillingly that Shearer went. He might have survived a fight, but he and the party would have been left in even worse shape. In a move typical of his inconvenient “nice guy” style, he went in his own time frame and with a good grace, thus reducing the amount of gore generated in the next month. But it will still be abattoiresque.

The essential mathematics haven’t changed and seem irreducibly problematic. The party almost certainly favours David Cunliffe; a majority of the caucus would rather serve under Quade Cooper. Comparisons with Australia’s Kevin Rudd situation are irresistible. Cunliffe has so disrespected colleagues on his way up the greasy pole that any power base he manages to build will be grudged and unreliable.

The caucus favours Grant Robertson, and on the plus side, at least the wider party doesn’t appear to have anything against him. It’s just that Cunliffe, who is ferociously bright and has a commanding speaking style, has come to be thought of as the Messiah who can lead Labour to a towering victory and restore left-wing policies to their rightful dominance.

Unfortunately, there’s no knowing what on earth that view is founded on. Cunliffe has not made clear which if any of the party’s current policies he would ditch or strengthen. There is not some alternative slate of policy floating around that has been foolishly ignored by the caucus hierarchy.

On the contrary, the MPs seem remarkably unified on that score. Aside from the sideshow skirmish of the man ban and the regrettable squeamishness over Maryan Street’s euthanasia bill, there are no obvious ideological volcanoes simmering under the party or the caucus. Their beef is, obviously, that they’re not in government, and not polling strongly to be sure of remedying that outrage.

The caucus and party do have a rift, however, and dismally, it’s about personality and the almost magical ability Cunliffe has to project back whatever set of aspirations frustrated party members have, without uttering a single specific. The general supposition is that he would restore Labour to the left. But that stumbles on the fact that neither Shearer nor Phil Goff before him took the party further to the right or even the centre.

MP Daivd Cunliffe
David Cunliffe, photo/David White

The leadership ructions inside the caucus have been a combination of Shearer’s failure to fire and the calcification factions based on brute careerism. Bluntly, there’s the A team, those certain to go far in the party because they have public appeal and talent; the B team, the less naturally gifted and the distinctly unappealing; and the oldies, experienced and prominent MPs who, though still contributing way more than the B team, have a limited shelf life. Shearer had the – albeit waning – support of the A team and the oldies. Cunliffe has shrewdly cultivated the B-team, those MPs unlikely to earn promotion on merit or public appeal, so banking on the patronage of a Cunliffe leadership for their promotion.

Trouble is, if Cunliffe wins and the B-team is all he has to count on in Parliament, he’s going to come at an immediate discount.

Cunliffe’s ability to win over the genuine support and trust of the A-team and the oldies is in serious question. They remain furious with him. Many in those factions believe he was deliberately unhelpful and disloyal to Goff and others during the last election campaign, and claim a pattern of high-handed behaviour and selfishness.

Harder-headed faction members will now be weighing that animus against the possibility that Cunliffe is nevertheless the man best able to win over the public. But they will also be wondering whether they can ignore the fact that similar nose-peg reckoning by the Australian Labor Party over Rudd seems to have proven unsuccessful.

Grant Robertson, photo/Marty Melville

A key question arises: if a majority of his own colleagues don’t like him, why should the public be expected to? But does “like” even matter? Arguably, the public respected and trusted more than “liked” Helen Clark when she was elected.

And a countervailing question is whether Robertson, who is famously likeable, would do as commanding a job of getting Labour back on the front foot.

It’s a curious coincidence that Robertson has several of the same presentational advantages as Key. Both are uncommonly comfortable in their own skins, even in the most stressful of public situations. Like Key, the former diplomat has a fluency and informality of style that can’t be taught or acquired. He’s as quick on his feet as the PM, and has a comparable facility with light-hearted remarks.

Labour may decide what’s called for is the foil of Cunliffe’s more patrician, formal style. The thinking will be that his comparative elegance will make Key seem oafish and lightweight by contrast.

There are, of course, other contenders. Shane Jones and Andrew Little are already in the frame, at least as deputyship possibilities. There is no shortage of talent, experience and public appeal in the caucus. Policy is coming along at reasonable rate. What’s gravely lacking, however, is unity, more important than ever with the Greens gnawing at Labour’s vote base.

For the post-Rogernomics reunification, Helen Clark found that the right rhetoric and a tactful veil drawn over various colleagues’ past actions, including her own, were to everyone’s benefit. Trouble this time is, whichever leader is chosen, the Cunliffe rift is probably too deep to be fixed by anything other than time and demographics. That’s way longer than an election cycle.

See also: the Listener's profiles of Grant Robertson and David Cunliffe.
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