Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: The bitter fallout from Labour leadership struggles

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Labour party's Grant Robertson. Photo / Marty Melville
Labour party's Grant Robertson. Photo / Marty Melville

The Labour Party limps on after a spectacular and damaging period of infighting over its leadership. It's now clear for all to see how deeply divided the wider party is, and how bitter and dysfunctional the Labour caucus currently is. Today's column by Chris Trotter examines this situation, and suggests that David Cunliffe has been made a scapegoat by the current leadership for an annual conference in which the delegates rebelled against the parliamentarians - see: David Cunliffe is driven by pride. Trotter says that Cunliffe can comfort himself with the thought that, although he has suffered a 'colossal personal defeat' he did not stoop to 'tug his forelock in the direction of Mr Shearer'.

Gordon Campbell is also sympathetic to Cunliffe, and is astonished that Labour and the incumbent leader can't deal with having an open contest for the leadership - see: On Labour's leadership vote.

Blogger Scott Hamilton has also discussed this issue intelligently in his post, Labour and the F word, which makes the argument in favour of factionalism in politics. He suggests that it's entirely healthy and democratic to have different organised ideological tendencies - though not personally-driven cliques - within a political party, and that New Zealand is an aberration in this regard, as other western party systems are relaxed about differences of opinions and even ambitions within a party.

Duncan Garner puts forward a very different view in his column, Labour, be careful what you wish for. Discussing the new constitutional rules for electing leaders which will give Labour Party members a significant role, he says that 'It's a recipe for instability. Quite frankly it's a disaster, a train-wreck waiting to happen. Imagine what it would look like in the media: For Labour it would mean weeks of public sniping and bitching'. Certainly, when such battles become deeply personalised and bitter, there is a danger of dysfunctionalism taking over - which is explained academically by Paul Buchanan in Political Fratricide.

There is no doubt that much of the media has turned swiftly against Cunliffe, evidenced by strongly worded critiques of the failed leadership contender from Tracy Watkins (Cunliffe yet to lose his crunch), John Armstrong (Rival gets message Shape up or ship out of Labour), and two items by Jane Clifton: "Who, me?" On Cunliffe and Coups 101 and Saving the Labour Party. Similarly, there is a newfound respect for Shearer - see the Herald's How well did Shearer's speech go?.

There now appears to be a near-consensus that Shearer is safe and that Cunliffe has lost all hope of gaining the leadership in February. For example, John Armstrong says that by forcing of an early vote Shearer has 'effectively made February's vote a formality' - see: Shearer puts paid to risk of leadership challenge.

David Farrar isn't so sure that there's no future for Cunliffe as a leader, and he projects a plausible scenario whereby Cunliffe will take over the leadership after the next election - see: The path to the leadership. But surely Grant Robertson is the real winner from all of this. He's quietly managed to escape the turmoil with his reputation unscathed, and Farrar again makes this point well in the blogpost, How many will be sacked?. Farrar says Robertson has 'kept entirely out of this, allowing the two Camp Davids to go to war against each other. If Shearer's leadership becomes unviable at some stage then Robertson is poised to take over.... he was smart and has kept his name away from all the infighting - making him the unifying choice in future'. And according to iPredict, Robertson's stocks are rising. The chance of him being the next leader have apparently risen from about 20% to 34% in just a few days - see: Grant Robertson to be next Labour Party leader. The Standard also speculate on the Winners and losers as does Martyn Bradbury in Labour Party meltdown - winners, losers & predictions.

Despite Shearer's improved job security, he is hardly out of the woods yet. After all, cutting the internal competition down to size is one way to stay ahead, but it doesn't make you any taller. Even if it all goes quiet on Labour's David front there are some stubborn realities that continue to challenge the party. It has to be remembered that it was a lack of confidence that Shearer can lead Labour to victory in 2014 that created most of the tension. It is true that Labour has gained some ground in the polls, but it has been uneven, painfully slow and has had to be shared with the Greens and NZ First. It would also be very optimistic for Labour to assume the National Government will have another 24 months like the last 12. As Claire Trevett notes 'In reality, whether David Shearer, David Cunliffe, or some other figure altogether is the leader in 2014 will be decided by a far greater force than either caucus, the members or the unions: it will be decided by the polls' - see: Leadership battle shows protagonists' other sides.

While those backing one David over another may have ideological motives, Tracy Watkins sees little to separate them on policy, saying it's all about performance - see: Power of old guard part of leadership tussle. Meanwhile, Scott Yorke cheekily suggests that the schism is about something entirely different - see: Transcript Of Labour Party Caucus Meeting.

What may have changed is Shearer's willingness to get his political boots dirty writes Tim Watkin: 'He rather charmingly talked of offering a different style of politics. Which was decent, but left you wondering whether he had the hunger and the willingness to keep walking through the swamp when he was forced into rough terrain. Well he's been forced into that swamp now' - see: What David Shearer needs to do next.

While some commentators applauded the new hard-nosed attitude, others felt the need to tell the Labour leader directly that it is a mistake: 'It's the lack of moral justification that really bothers me, Mr Shearer. I thought you an honest man. But an honest man will take no comfort from fake support given under duress. And an honest man will not invent or exaggerate an opponent's crimes for his own advantage. Both are signs of weakness, not of strength' - see Brian Edwards' An Open Letter to David Shearer In another Open Letter to Mr Shearer, Labour blogger Robert Winter suggests that the Labour leader is being badly advised by the media and his fellow MPs. If the 'nice guy' non-politician image is to go, however, it is still very unclear what will replace it.

There are plenty applauding Shearer's actions as necessary and effective. The problem with such forthright endorsements from the likes of Mike Hosking (Cunliffe needs to be punished) is that many of those same commentators will be publicly backing John Key and National come the election.

While David Farrar has had fun speculating about Who else will be demoted?, Gordon Campbell thinks the obvious targets for demotion or discipline have nothing to do with the leadership struggle: 'Shearer and his team have struggled all year to get traction on the government, especially in comparison to the Greens. Perversely, Labour MP Shane Jones has been allowed by Shearer to repeatedly attack the coalition partner that Labour needs to govern' - see: Labour Party's leadership woes.

Another reality is that there are clearly some very disenchanted Labour activists, and they are arming themselves with constitutional tools that may create further showdowns. The change to leadership elections is just the first of a number of changes giving the party members a greater say, particularly over policy and candidate selections. The Winners and Losers post on the Standard warns that demotions will not be the preserve of the leader alone, with members getting 'more power over the list and electorate candidate selection. There will be a number of soft Shearer backers getting the word in the next few months that if they block a democratic leadership vote in February, their LECs will punish them'.

Shearer's own speech is evidence that the Labour caucus is feeling the pressure argues Chris Trotter: 'full of bold, radical and unmistakably Labour rhetoric and policy - was his direct response to the party membership's noisy determination to reclaim their party. They received Shearer's speech with whoops and cheers because, in truth, they had written it themselves' - see: Labour conference 'a revolution'?.

While disunity may well ensure defeat at the next election, unity alone won't be enough and will, in any case, need to be worked at rather than imposed. Even some of Cunliffe's supporters admit he overplayed his hand, but it is the majority of Labour MPs who are truly delusional if they believe that the destruction of Cunliffe's ambitions will solve the real causes of the last weeks wobbles. But, finally, if David Shearer is reading, then he should ignore the many links above as well as the masses of advice being presented throughout the blogosphere, and instead just read Scott Yorke's succinctly aggregated version: Some Advice To Labour's Leader.

Other items of interest or importance from the last week:

* Sarah Daniell talks to TV3's new Political Editor- see: Twelve Questions with Patrick Gower, which is intelligently discussed by Danyl Mclauchlan in his blogpost, Do you support Paddy Gower?. And David Farrar farewells the outgoing political editor in his revealing blogpost, Duncan Garner. For more gossip on this, see Rachel Glucina's Duncan Garner has left the building.

* It would be easy to miss the fact that a serious constitutional review is currently underway, which could have significant implications for New Zealand politics. Karl du Fresne looks over the issues in depth in Reviewing New Zealand's constitution. du Fresne also nominates his favourite pundit in Our most important political commentator.

* For an interesting discussion of our cultural identity, see Rod Vaughan's Why Americans embrace nationhood but Kiwis do not.

* Is New Zealand devoid of public intellectuals and big ideas? In their different ways, that's what Bernard Hickey and Peter Lyons argue in Of strategic thinkers and leaders there is little sign and Big ideas to drive growth are simply not there.

* Finally, the funniest political satire of the week is from David Haywood: Gerry Brownlee: "I Like To Knock Cats".

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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