Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Labour's future: unity or bloodbath?

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Labour leader hopeful David Cunliffe. Photo / Paul Taylor
Labour leader hopeful David Cunliffe. Photo / Paul Taylor

Will escalating tensions in the Labour leadership contest boil over once the winner is declared on Sunday afternoon? TV3's Patrick Gower (@patrickgowernz) has tweeted to say 'if Cunliffe wins, the Labour Caucus room will be re-named "Cunliffe and Sons Butchers - since Sept. 2013'. Similarly, Cathy Odgers (@CactusKate2) tweeted today that David Cunliffe 'sacked a volunteer who is his friend. Imagine what he's going to do in that caucus room when Leader'. Duncan Garner backs up this notion in his blogpost, Robertson vs. Cunliffe, which emphasises the 'hatred and bile' within the current caucus, which is unlikely to subside.

There is the possibility that bitterness and personality politics could lead to post-election revenge. It might also be sensible for any winner to attempt to vanquish their worst opponents from Parliament in order to prevent further destabilisation attempts. On the other hand, there is also a strong desire for unity within the wider party, and there is a recognition from most in Labour that to win in 2014 the party is going to have to very quickly pull together in a unified and harmonious team. Pragmatism - and especially the self-interest of various MPs - will likely play the dominant role in containing any tendency towards bloodletting. The election of deputy leader by the caucus alone will be a crucial test of whether unity or revenge dominates in the new leadership.

Nasty identity politics allegations

On the whole Labour's leadership contest has been impressive for the degree of harmony and positivity displayed, or at least for maintaining the illusion of unity.

Over most of the three-week contest there has been a distinct lack of dirty campaigning and nastiness. At least this was the case until Clare Curran, firmly in Camp Robertson, pushed the nuclear button by publicly accusing the Cunliffe camp of attempting to opportunistically take advantage of homophobia in order to keep Grant Robertson from winning. Suddenly the identity politics that so often plagues Labour was again in full force, dividing the party apart.

The best coverage of Curran's Twitter allegations was in TVNZ's item, Labour leadership contest turns sour, which detailed the reactions to Curran's attack on her rivals. David Cunliffe's response was to eventually stand down campaign volunteer Jenny Michie, who was accused by opponents of engaging in homophobic politics. Cunliffe claimed to be taking the high moral ground, while accusing Curran of breaking the non-aggression pact and failing to use official channels for her complaint. Shane Jones was far more vociferous, however, suggesting that he would refrain from giving Curran so much as a policy portfolio if he won the leadership - see Andrea Vance's Cracks show as race rivalry mounts. Robertson's response was to defend Curran and to generally downplay the issue - see Brook Sabin's Robertson: 'The whole thing has got a bit silly'.

Curran's sister (Katherine Curran; @babalonsister) also entered the public fray, going on Twitter to publish her own defence of Clare Curran, suggesting the MP was a victim of sexism, saying 'it is simply easier to call them incompetent or too emotional or something' and 'Women who speak their mind and speak up supposedly out of place always frighten other men'. For more on how the Twittersphere responded to Curran's allegations, see my blog post, Top tweets about the recent alleged dirty tricks in the Labour leadership contest.

The outbreak of war on Twitter and the blogosphere probably reflects the fact that political parties can never entirely suppress dissent nor paper over internal cracks. By ruling that the official forums of the contest would be devoid of full expression, Labour merely squeezed debate out into the margins. As Jane Clifton suggests today, 'MPs and supporters were hideously incontinent on social media sites. They sat through all those meetings where the need for sportsmanship during and unity following the vote was stressed and applauded, and then went out and wrote bile-filled bilge' - see her paywalled Listener column, Who's the boss?.

Chris Trotter has now upped the ante, writing a very controversial blogpost that accuses Camp Robertson of smearing Camp Cunliffe by playing the 'homophobia victim card'. Trotter also suggests that Robertson has a history of using this tactic - see Trotter's Cunliffe's Decision: Easy to make, but hard to swallow. Unsurprisingly, the comments section of that blog has become heated, and Grant Robertson has left a comment to deny the allegations. So essentially, you have Camp Robertson accusing Camp Cunliffe of homophobic dirty tricks, and then Camp Cunliffe responding by accusing Camp Robertson of disingenuously using homophobic smears as a dirty tactical weapon.

This is the type of nasty infighting that National was probably hoping the contest would descend into. Cabinet Minister Judith Collins has weighed in on the sexuality debate in a characteristically colourful analysis of all three candidates - see her guest blogpost on The Ruminator, Dance of the Desperates. Collins says 'I really don't think many people care that Grant is gay. In my opinion, Kiwis care that Grant thinks it's such a big deal that he denied that his partner, Alf, was in the very same pub as Grant when it suited him for the TV cameras. That was a Judas moment and Grant lost my respect for it'. Of course, Collins directs barbs at all three contestants.

For another picture of divisiveness, dirty fighting, and uncertainty in the contest, see Tracy Watkins column, Fog of war descends in Labour battle. As one example of the nastiness, Watkins reports: 'Mr Cunliffe's wife, Karen Price, was nearly turned away from a Dunedin candidates' meeting because she did not have her Labour membership card, despite arriving at her husband's side'.

It was this example of aggression, allegedly from Camp Robertson, that pushed former Party President Mike Williams to come out publicly in favour of David Cunliffe yesterday in an interesting blog post that evaluates all three candidates - see: Cunliffe's the man for the job - here's why.

Blogs have, of course, weighed in heavily on Labour's contest. Traditionally The Standard has been the main leftwing site to watch, and it now strongly favours Cunliffe. Lynn Prentice, who is seen as the 'owner-operator' behind The Standard today blogged his endorsement of Cunliffe - see: My votes. Other more important blogposts on The Standard about the contest in recent days include Assessing the contenders' campaigns , and Cunliffe shows leadership steel.

Post-selection unity

Many commentators are - like Patrick Gower - suggesting some sort of bloodletting is likely to occur after Sunday. Brian Edwards is also forecasting some sort of bloodbath or at least further debilitating disunity coming out of the leadership result, whatever it may be. He paints the various bleak scenarios for Labour in his blogpost today, Yond Cunliffe has a lean and hungry look!. Similarly, Chris Trotter writes a warning today in his newspaper column, House wins in party politics. Trotter says that with Labour's more rightwing MPs falling behind Robertson, an upset will produce an 'unprecedented' level of 'disappointment and disillusionment' amongst Labour activists.

It's hard to know of course, because Labour's new selection process is relatively uncharted territory for New Zealand. But some of the minor parties do use similar mechanisms, and academic blogger Geoffrey Miller looks at some of the possibilities for Labour's future unity and strength in his blogposts, Can Labour learn from Act's leadership primary? Part One and Part Two.

One of the big changes in the new leadership process is the fact that the public - and Labour's opponents - will be privy to the voting results of all three power groupings in the party. Barry Soper says that 'We'll find out who was the most disliked by the card carriers, the unions and the MPs. Gone are the days when the scrutineers emerge from the caucus room, clutching the secret voting papers, counting them and then destroying the evidence. So the new leader will from the get go know just how divided the party is, how he's perceived by the unions and more importantly, how big the division is with his parliamentary colleagues' - see: Shane Jones the loose cannon.

Audrey Young puts it similarly, when she says that if Cunliffe wins 'on a first count by getting just over 50 per cent of the total vote including membership and unions but with low caucus support, National would repeatedly use it against him. The caucus would look to be out of step with public opinion' - see: Last minute scramble to woo MPs.

Colin Espiner also looks at post-selection caucus unity in Labour needs unity, whatever the result. In a section that is worth quoting at length, Espiner outlines the problem if Cunliffe wins without winning over his caucus, but he also suggests that it's not insurmountable: 'Cunliffe can only command the votes of 10, at best 12, members of Labour's caucus, at least at first blush. Even if he picks up some of Jones' votes on a second ballot, that still leaves nearly two-thirds of caucus for whom Cunliffe was not the first choice. The election of a party leader under such circumstances must surely be unparalleled anywhere in a democratic country. Labour is likely to end up with a leader whom most of its MPs don't want. How the Labour caucus - including Cunliffe himself - deals with this eventuality will essentially determine its fate at the next election. If they sulk, and Cunliffe is anything less than humble in victory, the party will rip itself apart and Key will romp home. But if Labour's MPs manage to put aside their dislike of their new leader and realise that their enemy is actually sitting across the forecourt of Parliament in the Beehive, and if they get behind Cunliffe and let him do what he does so well, which is sell Labour's message to voters, then the Opposition could pose a very real threat to the Government by this time next year'.

Of course, if Cunliffe wins it's very possible that the bloodletting might be kept to a minimum. Leading ABC contenders such as Trevor Mallard, Clare Curran, Annette King, and Clayton Cosgrove may be forced to retire at the next election (or else face very difficult re-selection contests with Labour's National Office against them), but others from Camp Robertson and Jones are likely to be spared. As Jane Clifton suggests today, 'A few heads on pikes are only fair, but it's shrewder to be generous to your foes'. And for more Machiavellian strategy for dealing with the possible internal dissent, Cameron Slater has published a post: A Word of advice for Labour's new leader.

Clifton believes that the contest 'has been damaging' as it has 'cemented party divisions rather than smoothing them over'. She also acknowledges, however, how 'profoundly invigorating' the contest has been for the party outside of Parliament. And this regard, it's worth reading Toby Manhire's column today, National may sneer, but their leader election rules look out of step.

Who will win the leadership?

The iPredict website still suggests that Cunliffe is way out in front with an 80% probability of winning, against only 19% for Robertson and 1% for Jones. Many commentators are also still suggesting a Cunliffe win - Colin Espiner, for instance, says 'if I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Cunliffe - by a nose'. Audrey Young has the details of the voting configurations in which either Robertson or Jones could still beat Cunliffe - see: Gay remark sees Cunliffe aide out. And Cunliffe's chances might be either helped or hindered by the results of TV3's poll, which accords him both big pluses and minuses - see Patrick Gower's Voters view Cunliffe as negative leader.

This week has also seen Robertson receive endorsements from Bob Jones and the Wellingtonian newspaper.

Much will depend, obviously, on how the Labour caucus votes. Audrey Young provides an estimate of where the numbers sit in caucus: Robertson - 17; Cunliffe - 12; and Jones - 5 - see: Last minute scramble to woo MPs. But Patrick Gower provides different figures: Robertson 15 (but is claiming 20), Cunliffe 10 or 11 (but claims 12), and Jones 4 (but claims 9), plus 4 are undecided. And for a conspiratorial take on how caucus might vote, see Chris Trotter's Is Someone Planning To Fix Labour's Leadership Election?.

The membership vote gets an entirely different analysis/speculation in David Farrar's Modelling the Labour Members vote. Farrar has also put forward another theory about what might transpire after Sunday: 'The theory I'm now hearing is they give Cunliffe six to nine months if he wins, and if things implode then they roll him and Jones is put up as leader unopposed for the election. Assuming he doesn't win, then you get Robertson take over after the election. Machiavelli would be proud!' - see: The battle getting heated. Farrar also published what appears to be his final statistical analysis of where the votes might fall in the contest, saying that although he personally picks a Cunliffe victory, it's Too close to call.

Regardless of who eventually leads Labour, it's unlikely that the party is going to swerve off to the left. This is a point very well made by RadioLive political editor, Jessica Williams, who likens the Labour contest to a Rocky Horror style Timewarp dance - see: It's just a jump to the left...

The media's coverage of the campaign - the subject of my last column - is intelligently responded to by Danyl McLauchlan in Labour and combinatorial game theory and Grant Duncan in Is the Labour leadership election decided by the media? See also, The Standard's Reviewing the media coverage of the leadership race and Duncan Garner's In defence of Guyon Espiner.

Finally, Claire Trevett says that there are important prizes to come out of Labour's contest beyond simply winning the leadership, and she hands them out in her column Entertainment galore on the Labour hustings. For further humour and insights, see my updated blogpost of cartoons and photos, Images of the Labour leadership contest, and note that some of the protagonists also feature very heavily in past blogposts such as Images of Labour's current challenges, Images of Labour's post-conference conflict, and The State of the Labour Party - some recent images.

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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