Editorial: 'Job ready' Cunliffe still needs work

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David Cunliffe. Photo / Steven McNicholl
David Cunliffe. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Pressure on newly elected Labour leader to get it right The Labour Party can count its first open leadership election a success. If the purpose was not only to find a capable leader but also to attract attention to the party, promote its values and, not least, motivate its membership, it has succeeded on all counts.

The winner, David Cunliffe, was clearly the most capable of the candidates offering themselves. He looked, as Helen Clark had put it, "job-ready".

His problem, of course, is that he looked job- ready when Phil Goff stood down and the caucus preferred David Shearer. This time it has preferred Grant Robertson.

There was always a risk that the party membership and affiliated unions would force the caucus to accept a leader it did not want. Mr Cunliffe has a great deal of work to do now to win the confidence of his parliamentary team and convince the country that he could lead a cohesive, stable government.

In that respect, all three candidates in the election have served the party's interests well. They have largely managed to meet the request not to criticise one another. That was a tall order for anyone trying to distinguish himself over rivals. It speaks well for them and for the standard of debate within the party that the exercise did not produce an unseemly public spectacle.

The only one to make any sort of spectacle of himself was Shane Jones. He cast himself as a rambunctious hero of the "smoko room" who alone could broaden Labour's appeal and pull previous non-voters to the polls. He indulged in some odd and vulgar references to the Prime Minister which neither John Key nor anybody else were meant to take seriously and left the question, why was Mr Jones in this campaign?

If he hoped to prove himself a serious eventual contender for the country's leadership, and put the pornography behind him, it was hard to see how that purpose was served by him campaigning as a clown. He had some serious points to make about Labour's tendency to see solutions in social welfare. His best line was: "labour" means work.

Mr Cunliffe and Mr Robertson played to the more left wing views of the party members, who seem still obsessed with ideological battles of the 1980s. Many of them, says former party president Mike Williams, have only recently returned to the party after the divisions of that time.

He told the Listener the week before Mr Shearer resigned, "A lot of bloody lunatics who had gone off in to the Alliance are now back ... a lot of the kamikaze wing of the Labour Party has returned."

They gave themselves the power at the party conference last year to outvote the caucus in a leadership election. It seemed lunatic, "kamikaze" even, but so far, so good. The party has a more naturally gifted leader than Mr Shearer and if he can lift Labour in the polls the caucus will probably come around.

In the meantime, the tension will keep public attention on Labour, which may be one reason the executive has released the vote of each section of the party. Another reason may have been to put pressure on the caucus to follow the members' choice and avoid the awkward consequences they now face in Parliament.

National will feast on the caucus vote for some time but Mr Cunliffe will smile his way through it. His public manner will matter much more. He needs to modify the characteristics that his colleagues dislike, for television audiences will dislike them too. But he also needs to be himself, convince voters of his ideas and attract the confidence of the country. He has the skills and now he has the chance.

- NZ Herald

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