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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Labour's brutal week reveals Achilles heel

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Political brilliance in getting Shane Jones out of the House provoked a danse macabre by the party's left

Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Warren Buckland
Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Warren Buckland

Could things get any worse for David Cunliffe than they did this week?

It is quite conceivable they might, of course. Cunliffe's leadership of Labour still has a way to go before it hits rock-bottom. But this week's very public exhibition of the disunity which flows freely and abundantly from the deep schisms within the party may well have proved to be sufficiently damaging to have put victory in September's general election out of reach.

Senior Labour figures are bracing themselves for an expected hit in the opinion polls, but are confident it will be shortlived.

Before this week's disasters, Labour's own pollsters were said to have been registering the party's vote at around 30 per cent. That is very close to the 29.5 per cent recorded in the most recent Herald-DigiPoll survey.

However, usually reliable sources say National's private polling over the past week points to the real scale of Labour's horror story with support crumbling to a mindblowing low of just 23 per cent.

The start of the week was punishing enough in itself with Labour squirming in humiliation following National's cruise missile-like strike which removed the Opposition party's current prime asset from the forthcoming election campaign.

Labour's embarrassment at losing Shane Jones as a result of a quite brilliant piece of politics on Murray McCully's part left Labour powerless to hit back at National.

But that was no excuse for the outbreak of factional warfare in the form of the Labour left indulging in a danse macabre on Jones' still warm political corpse.

This would not have been in National's script. The governing party would consequently have been pinching itself at its good fortune in provoking such disarray.

For those in Labour's ranks still interested in winning the election, observing the self-destructive behaviour must have been the equivalent of watching members of the orchestra on the heavily-listing Titanic fighting over who owned the instruments.

Cunliffe has had his share of slip-ups this year, most notably the exposure of his use of a private trust to hide donations to his campaign during the three-way contest for the Labour leadership last year.

But his mistakes now pale into relative insignificance in comparison to this week's calamities which began with McCully luring Jones with a job offer as a roving Pacific-wide economic ambassador.

Sure, a disenchanted Jones may have been ripe for the picking given Labour's new method of electing its leader would have more than likely shut him out of the job for good - unless the party's MPs could have agreed to put him up as the sole candidate and present the wider party with a fait accompli.

But getting Jones to quit Parliament was still a lesson in the art of politics. Jones had been one of the only two Labour MPs causing National the slightest bit of grief - the other being Grant Robertson with his hounding of Judith Collins.

Jones' departure immediately prompted an at times bitter argument over whether he had been of any real value to Labour during his nine years in Parliament. As far as those on Labour's left flank were concerned, he was just an over-ambitious blowhard who had a way with words but who was driven by self-interest, rather than being imbued with team spirit - something which was amply illustrated by the shocking timing of his going as far as his many critics are concerned. They had two words to mark - or rather celebrate - his exit: good riddance.

For those on Labour's right flank, Jones had been someone who, for all his faults, could reach into segments of the voting public which those on the left professed to represent, but with which they had long lost touch.

Given Jones was such a polarising figure, the post-mortems were inevitable. But this argument was as much about Labour's direction as it was about Jones. Along with other colleagues, Jones was worried that Cunliffe's shifting of the party leftwards could only extend so far and for so long. At some point, Cunliffe would have to bow to the brutal electoral mathematics which require the two major parties to fight for occupying rights in the centre. The great fear of Jones and others was that Cunliffe's seeming chopping and changing would end up satisfying no-one.

Jones' departure has stoked even more worry for the party's centrists that the left will see it as a victory in the simmering and debilitating power struggle for control of the party.

There has been a lot of talk in the past few days about Labour being a "broad church" for all-comers. Indeed, Helen Clark's strategy for winning elections had Labour building relationships of mutual benefit with sections of society who were in the minority - such as the gay community - or felt they were in the minority - such as the elderly.

A fair chunk of these minorities have formal representation within Labour's organisation. But in seeking to secure their pound of flesh in terms of policy gains in return for votes, their agendas have become increasingly out of sync with the far more apolitical or conservative-leaning wider New Zealand public.

With the left of the party running its own agenda which puts purity ahead of pragmatism, Labour's appeal is shrinking. Those voters whom Labour needs to capture will see Jones' exit as a further narrowing of Labour's appeal. The "broad church" is turning into The Temple of the Tyranny of the Minority.

Those voters will also view the disdain shown towards Jones and accompanying calls for the purging from Parliament of such Labour stalwarts as Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard as pretty solid evidence that Labour's disunity is such that it is not yet fit to govern.

Much of the arguing of the past few days has taken place in social media and the blogosphere. Too late Labour has discovered these tools can be double-edged swords. They are fine when it comes to disseminating a message. But not so fine when the protagonists in a digitally-sourced debate start hanging out their party's dirty washing simply to score points against a competing faction.

If nothing else, Cunliffe has to restore some discipline to the party's proceedings. His difficulty is that doing so requires him to confront those on the left of the party whose votes won him the leadership.

He is scheduled to make a speech to members of Labour's youth wing this weekend. He is expected to stress Labour must remain a broad church party; that Labour can target policies both to the left and centre. The big question is how firm and insistent he is in pitching this message - and whether his audience is willing to heed the obvious warnings the speech will implicitly carry.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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