Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Crucial month ahead for new-look Labour

The most important thing for Cunliffe this weekend is to build on the energy generated by the recently completed leader race.
The most important thing for Cunliffe this weekend is to build on the energy generated by the recently completed leader race.

What a painful set of headlines for a Labour leader to read in the lead-up to the party conference. "Storm clouds gather over leadership." "Do or die conference for leadership." "Leadership on a knife-edge."

At the same time, the sound of a bevy of leftie commentators are baying for resignation. Squadrons of pseudonymous leftwing bloggers are demanding defenestration. Over on the right, bloggers are in sweaty rapture at the sight of a "co-ordinated strategy to destabilise".

Such a difference a year makes. That was the soundtrack in the days before the Labour conference in Auckland last year. This time round, as Labour delegates congregate in Wigram, Christchurch, all is by contrast calm. There is no storm cloud hanging over David Cunliffe's head, as there was David Shearer's.

Cunliffe will take his seat as a still freshly elected leader, yet to begin his 50th day in the job.

But more important than that, there's an election a year away, possibly even sooner. Not even the most hari-kari-happy Labour person will be stage-whispering about regime change this weekend.

Given the pantomime that played out last year, the prospect of a conference that goes by largely overlooked will hold some appeal. But recent polls show that the sugar hit of a new leader is wearing off, that the boost in Labour support has, for the moment, plateaued. Cunliffe's preferred-PM rating is still in the doldrums.

So the month of November 2013 is a crucial one for Cunliffe and the Labour Party, bookended by the conference and the Christchurch East byelection on November 30. There is good fortune for Labour that its gathering is here - immediately following Cunliffe's speech, a fleet of busses will ferry members east to knock on doors and preach the word. You can imagine Cunliffe pointing them to the carpark. Once more unto the buses, dear friends!

While energising the troops is as important as anything, however, Cunliffe would be smart to lower the Agincourt quotient a little from that call to arms issued in his New Lynn office when declaring his candidacy. In the face of a government straining every sinew to characterise the Labour-Green alternative as deranged Stalinist, Albanian economic-vandal saboteur devil-beasts, with an election on the horizon, Cunliffe would look better going for the statesmanlike territory, rather than setting off another round of I Know You Are But What Am I.

This year, the big speech is on Saturday afternoon rather than Sunday. And the most potentially controversial part of the weekend - a proposed rule change to oblige the committee drawing up the party list to "arrive at a list which fairly represents tangata whenua, gender, ethnic groups, people with disabilities, sexual orientations, and age and youth" - is scheduled for a day later. Cunliffe's spotlight will not be sullied. Media won't be welcome at those Sunday sessions, either. Unlike in 2012, the bright red, grinning words "Closed to media" appear all over the programme.

Hard to blame them. There is certainly a danger that an almighty row over "quotas" might overshadow events - you can hear the rightwing bloggers trying to conjure up a pithy label a la "Man Ban" even now. But the arguments that a progressive party should jettison all efforts to ensure representation on the party list - something which just about all parties try to achieve - because this will somehow upset people who want to hear about jobs and education and housing is daft. Grownups can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Similarly, Cunliffe needn't buy into the idea that a leader's speech must be designed to speak either to "the hall" or "the country". For any half-decent party leader it should always be both. While Cunliffe is likely to rehearse existing Labour points of difference - on the economy, on housing, on energy, on surveillance - there will no doubt be a big reveal of some sort. A smart and popular option would be to pick up on Shane Jones' theme in the leader election, and promise a proper review into New Zealand's supermarket duopoly.

The staggeringly expensive cost of groceries is something just about everyone is alert to.

The big challenge, however, is to articulate, both to the membership and the wider public, the shift in Labour thinking, mirroring much of what's going in UK Labour, away from the Blairite "third way" and towards interventions at the distributive end of markets, rather than trying to remedy problems - of inequality, mostly - at the other end. The living wage and the single-power-buyer policy both fit this bill. Rather than involving ambulances, it's an argument for levelling off the cliff itself.

But the most important thing for Cunliffe this weekend is to build on the energy generated by the recently completed leader race, to channel the discipline (mostly) and enthusiasm of that contest into the conference. The speech will be scored by observers in seconds. But the first truly reliable evaluation of the Labour Party under David Cunliffe will be delivered in 29 days.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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