Jane Clifton: Labour's own red wedding

by Jane Clifton / 16 September, 2013
Cunliffe will long have been calculating how many scalps he can take from among his caucus opponents.
He has won, and won well. But the ever-culturally connecting Twittersphere is already looking forward to David Cunliffe’s “Red Wedding”: Tuesday’s caucus meeting.

As Game of Thrones followers know, the dreaded wedding was attended in good faith by rival kingdoms who thought they were invited in the spirit of reconciliation, but a striking number of guests were executed by the victor even before the bouquet-toss.  Cunliffe will long have been calculating how many scalps he can take from among his caucus opponents, without perpetuating the deep divisions from which his party is suffering. He has already indicated senior roles for his two leadership rivals, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones, and for former leader David Shearer.  But lust for caucus blood-spillage within the party appears pretty strong. If he doesn’t wreak vengeance, his supporters will be bitterly disappointed. Those identified as ABCs – Anyone But Cunliffe – are obviously on automatic notice.  But it’s not that simple, as few of them are expendable. Beside Robertson, the ABC ranks have included top younger party talents Jacinda Adern and Chris Hipkins, along with respected former leader Phil Goff and popular frontbench veteran Annette King.

David Cunliffe (right). Photo/David White

The smart money is on Cunliffe restricting utu to the least cuddly of his opponents: top of the demotion list, Trevor Mallard and Clayton Cosgrove. Clare Curran, who has for a second time caused fur to fly in the thick of an election campaign through injudicious blurts on social media, may join them in the dogbox.

The nocturnal long knives will also change Labour’s Parliamentary profile, with Cunliffe understood to have promised the so far undistinguished midbencher Ian Lees-Galloway Hipkins’ job as chief whip.  Hipkins was publicly critical of Cunliffe last year, citing disloyalty to Shearer.  It naturally follows union veteran Darien Fenton, junior whip, would also get the chop, and a new Oppositon Leader of the House – Roberton, perhaps? – will be chosen.  This will pitch a whole new team into the morale-critical role of besting the Government in Parliament.

A further complication is, who will be deputy?  Normally a “nothing” sort of job in the main Opposition party, the role takes on a new significance given the party’s divisions.  Cunliffe and his key supporters are known to favour a woman deputy, and Jones is on record as supporting that option too.  However, the role remains subject to the old party rules: it’s elected by the caucus. It’s extremely unlikely Cunliffe’s leading female lieutenants, Sue Moroney, Moana Mackey and Nanaia Mahuta, would get sufficient votes.  The obvious candidate would be Adern, but – not to put too fine a point on it - she might reserve the option of putting a little distance between herself and a colleague with whom she strongly differs in style. King is probably too strongly ABC-identified to be an option.  Maryann Street, a Robertson supporter, is not a likely candidate for a new leader wanting to put a fresh look on the party.

The fallback position is probably the safest – Robertson as deputy.  However, we don’t yet know whether he’d be willing, or whether Cunliffe would be.  It would certainly be the most potent symbol to the wider party that backbiting, in particular vicious social media advocacy, should be put aside.

In the short term, stilling that maelstrom of intra-party cyber-abuse is the best thing Cunliffe could do for Labour’s self-respect. He was commendably quick to distance himself from anonymous and rival-abusive social media campaigns.  But these have been endemic for a long time, and have corroded the party.  Having a group of supporters dedicated to daily, even hourly, slagging of MPs is not a recipe for electability.

These are all, of course, on Cunliffe’s To Do list before he even thinks about taking on National.  He is bound, in the traditional scheme of things, to get the instant opinion poll boost new leaders always enjoy.  But more than is usual with new leaders, he comes at the discount of the equivocation of colleagues.  Not since Mike Moore took over as emergency crash-pilot of the Labour Government in the 1990 election have there been such publicly-expressed misgivings about a leader’s suitability from his or her own side. These mainly centre on the former diplomat’s personal lapses of diplomacy: an ungovernable vanity and self-centredness in a party that has always functioned best as a hierarchical dog-pack.  He also has to deliver a whole new world of leftwing policy to party supporters who will have taken him quite literally when he thrust a bunch of red roses aloft and pledged himself to socialism last month.  Socialism plus electability is an equation that hasn’t been successfully pitched in this country, even in oblique terms, for many decades. Cunliffe is extraordinarily bright, and will know that just putting up business and income taxes, as the bulk of his party supporters undoubtedly want him to as a first priority, will cause electoral and economic consequences that don’t have quite such a feel-good vibe. Seldom has a new leader set such an ambitious agenda for him or herself. Politically, this is about as interesting as it gets.
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