Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Cunliffe's critics are everywhere

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Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / NZ Herald
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / NZ Herald

Everyone's a critic when it comes to David Cunliffe at the moment. Much of the criticism involves 'talking down' Cunliffe and Labour's chances of winning at the upcoming election. And it's not only coming from his rightwing opponents, but also closer to home.

Criticism appears to be particularly strong within the Labour Party itself, its supporters, and apparently even within the Labour caucus. There are a number of stories circulating about Cunliffe's colleagues being less than supportive. The most interesting version of this comes from RadioLive's Duncan Garner, who has given a four-minute rundown on what Labour insiders are telling him. You can listen here: Labour MPs are worried about David Cunliffe's performance.

Garner alleges that the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) club is reemerging within the Labour caucus: 'And they're a bit unhappy so they've reformed again and are just having a bit of a chat about how poorly performing Mr Cunliffe has been this year. They're not going to roll him. They're just concerned he's not delivering on his promises. I'm told that there's a bit of a go slow. Some of the MPs and the staff have decided well he can lose the election and we'll roll him straight after the election.

A go slow, that's what I'm told, they won't roll him but they're not working hard for him'.

For the full transcript of Garner's broadcast, see Pete George's Garner - Labour MPs to lose the election then roll Cunliffe. See also David Farrar's post The ABCs are back, in which he makes the point that 'Garner was one of the first to expose the maneuvers that were happening against David Shearer'.

Over the weekend the two main newspaper political columnists also focused on Cunliffe's critics and his failings. Tracy Watkins says 'Scratch beneath the bravado in Labour these days and you will find a pessimist. Blame it on the weather or a shortened barbecue season, Labour MPs seem already to be doubting the prospect of a Labour win. Even the optimists don't much bother to pretend they believe in Labour overtaking National any more. They argue instead that with the Greens votes they don't need to' - see: Greens faith spells danger for Labour. She points out that 'Even Left-wing blogs and the likes of columnist Chris Trotter, torch bearer for David Cunliffe's leadership, have started writing off the prospects of a Labour win', and 'this a dangerous time for Labour. Once a belief takes root that an election is unwinnable it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy'.

John Armstrong has also written about Labour's lack of progress, saying 'Cunliffe has precious little to show from his five months in the job' - see: It's past time for Cunliffe to get Labour moving. Armstrong reports that recent opinion polls are 'said to have had a chilling impact on the Labour caucus', and that the 'bigger picture is lacking. There is also a lack of urgency, which is failing to provide the momentum to keep Labour in the headlines for the right reasons - rather than trying to ping John Key for living in a "leafy suburb" when you do likewise'. Armstrong criticises the lack of 'fresh policy' coming out of Labour, and alludes to the possibility of Cunliffe going down the same electoral path as Bill English when he 'led National in 2002 to its worst defeat in the party's history'.

Last night's TVNZ opinion poll had National 17-points ahead of Labour, which political editor Corin Dann says is A wake up call for centre left. He also reports that 'Privately there is now some isolated grizzling from MPs about Mr Cunliffe's performance.... However, MPs I've spoken to insist there is no question around David Cunliffe's leadership', and that 'Cunliffe told me that he had checked the issue out and was confident he had the support of his whole caucus'. See also, Andrea Vance and Stacey Kirk's Labour limping, Greens in freefall - poll.

Could Labour be heading for a thrashing?

Last Monday I raised the possibility of the upcoming election may turn out not to be as close as expected - see: Could National actually thrash Labour again in 2014?. Other commentators have raised similar possibilities. Danyl McLauchlan has declared that he has changed his mind about the upcoming election: 'Up to now I've felt that the outcome of the election is too close to call. The sides are pretty even, small changes at the margins could have huge impacts on the results. But my gut feeling now is that Labour's support will collapse and National will win a third term. It feels like a replay of the 2011 election in which Labour keep doing baffling, stupid things and then demand to know why the media is biased against them and how anyone could like John Key. People don't want idiots running their country' - see: Gut feeling update.

Chris Trotter has also been pondering if Labour might be facing a massive decline - see his contentious blog post Canaries In A Coal Mine: Has The Daily Blog Poll anticipated Labour's Collapse?.

Cameron Slater also thinks Labour might be heading for a worse result than it received in 2011 - see: Labour's poll woes create pressure, will be it be diamonds or coal?.

So is time running out for Labour and Cunliffe? The problem is that the perception becomes reality, just as it did for David Shearer who was perceived as a lame duck leader because there was so much talk about his performance. But, as National activist Jordan McCluskey (@JordanMcCluskey) has tweeted, 'Despite everyone talking down Cunliffe's chances, the election is a long time away and he could still be PM by the end of the year'.

Labour Party responses to criticism

Labour supporters are not taking kindly to the critique. Labour's blogging spin-doctor Rob Salmond has blogged to belittle Trotter's post (above) - see: Chris Trotter: "gaseous exhalations". Yet in his rush to condemn Trotter, Salmond seems to have largely missed the point. Similarly, Labour blogger Kieran Gainsford says to Trotter: You're Making Us Look Bad.

Salmond has written some other interesting defences of Cunliffe and Labour - see: A bad week, Fairfax poll: Preferred PM, and Rough estimates of poll bias.

Mostly the political left appears to be in denial about Labour's challenges, and especially the recent opinion poll results. For example, to see the type of responses to the latest TVNZ poll on The Standard, read Pete George's The poll is rogue because.... See also, Martyn Bradbury's We have nothing to fear but TVNZ Polls.

Cunliffe's authenticity problem

Part of the criticism of Cunliffe relates to a perceived lack of authenticity on the Labour leader's part. The latest example for his critics came from his botched attack on John Key for having an expensive home in Auckland - see Tova O'Brien's TV3 report, Cunliffe hiding $2.5M mansion from voters - Key.

In subsequent commentary, Cunliffe has been derided for his claim to live a 'reasonably middle-range existence'. See, for example, Mike Hosking's Cunliffe should be proud of his flash house, who says that 'In attacking the Prime Minister for living in a leafy suburb, he not only makes the mistake of making it personal, he gets hoisted by his own petard given he lives in one as well. That makes him a hypocrite'.

Matthew Hooton also challenges Cunliffe's sense of authenticity in his latest NBR column, Does Labour have a Plan B? (paywalled). He argues that Labour is mistaken for thinking that attacks on Key's wealth will work, when voters prize authenticity more highly: 'New Zealanders don't expect their prime ministers to be ordinary Kiwis. The past five elections have been won by a childless feminist academic whose hobbies were Norwegian cross-country skiing and mountaineering in Africa and South America, and a multi-millionaire money trader who holidays in Hawaii. Voters do expect, though, that prime ministers will be genuine Kiwis, truthful about who they are'.

Some of these arguments are backed up by a new poll that shows how the public feel about our leaders - see Tracy Watkins' Key most liked, trusted. This reports that 'John Key is by far our most liked and trusted politician, with 59.3 per cent of people liking him, and 58.7 per cent also trusting him'. Brian Edwards is quoted as saying 'With David Cunliffe he probably does not come across as such an easygoing, warm sort of character . . . he's not hated, but I don't think he enjoys that popular appeal John Key has'.

See also the Taranaki Daily Times editorial, which advises Just be yourself, Mr Cunliffe. The point made is that 'Mr Key is liked for reasons unrelated to his wealth. He is comfortable with himself and does not pretend to be somebody else. Mr Cunliffe should do likewise. Trying to project himself as somebody he is not is folly'.

Could Labour change leaders again?

The prospect of a leadership change has started to rear its head. For instance, the Herald's John Drinnan (@Zagzigger) has tweeted, 'Will Shane Jones make another tilt at the Labour leadership'. There is certainly a lot of commentary around at the moment about Shane Jones' successful anti-supermarket campaign.

Rob Hosking says that 'The resurgence of Labour MP Shane Jones over the past few weeks has again thrown into question whether the party made the right decision in its 2013 leadership election' - see: Shane Jones' redemption song (paywalled). Hosking believes that 'There could yet be a panicky leadership change', and that Jones would be the main contender to turn things around for Labour. Hosking reports more fully on the malaise in Labour: "There were reports last night a group of Labour members have decided already the 2014 election is lost: Mr Cunliffe, who reeks of inauthenticity and who cannot attract, or retain, talented people around him, is not going to win; and even if he were to cobble together a majority it would be one in which other parties - the Greens and New Zealand First, directly or indirectly - would have too much influence. In other words, Labour is gearing up for yet another election with a leader a majority of MPs do not want and do not want to win under. It is like 2011. Or, for that matter, 1993, under Mike Moore, when Helen Clark's supporters effectively sat on their hands in the last week of the campaign rather than win what was a very close election'.

Willie Jackson is also supportive of Shane Jones: 'And doesn't Labour need Jones at the moment? Their leader David Cunliffe has made a weak start to the political year' - see: Shane Jones on fire in 2014. Jackson says that 'Labour are still relevant only because of him at the moment and if Cunliffe continues with his mediocre performances Jones should be seen as the only alternative as Labour Party leader'.

In another column, The likelihood of an early election is growing by the day (paywalled), Rob Hosking also raises the question of whether National will attempt to take advantage of Labour's current woes by holding the general election much earlier than anticipated: 'Labour's David Cunliffe has been utterly hapless: for all his undoubted brain power he has a polticial tin ear, and with a non-supportive caucus behind him and difficulties attracting, let alone retaining, talented staff, he is increasingly accident-prone. The gaffe over his "middle of the road" (his words) $2.3 million Herne Bay house, and being filmed discussing this at Auckland's yachting marina, is the kind of stupidity which ruins election campaigns. National would rather face Mr Cunliffe than, say Shane Jones, whose jihad against Australian owned supermarkets, launched last week, is connecting with voters over an issue they care about in a way no-one in Labour has managed for years'.

Of course, the other main Labour leadership contender from last year, might be content to wait and see if Cunliffe loses the election - see Pete George's Is Grant Robertson playing the long game?.

According to Matthew Hooton, a leadership change is highly unlikely this year, due to the new party constitution which essentially protects Cunliffe's position: 'The problem for Labour is that if the caucus voted no confidence in the leader - which it undoubtedly would - it would merely activate a new election by the membership and unions, which Mr Cunliffe would certainly win. Alas Labour has no Plan B. The new constitution Mr Cunliffe was involved in foisting on the party prevents it. They're stuck with him' - see: Does Labour have a Plan B? (paywalled).

Labour's differentiation problem

Rather than being a problem with David Cunliffe himself, Labour's problems might lie deeper. A number of recent blog posts and articles have criticised Labour for its lack of differentiation from other parties. It seems that Labour is having trouble projecting exactly what it stands for. For example, on The Standard, Mike Smith complains that 'Labour's approach to this election cannot be "just a list of things that you're against."' - see: Home thoughts from abroad. He complains about Labour's 'endless barrage of negative press releases that sometimes appear to be more about personal point-scoring than focussing on the things that matter to voters'.

Similarly see Nick Leggett's blog post About more than what you're against. He outlines how 'Labour's policy challenge relates primarily to being able to adequately differentiate itself from the National party to its right and the Greens to its left', and that 'The real question is: what does a modern social democratic party in New Zealand stand for?'

For a recent example of Labour's deferentiation problems, see Brian Rudman's Labour puts us on the road to chaos. He argues that Labour has capitulated on its former policies in favour of public transport, and in Auckland now supports not just road charges, but generally a pro-roading policy similar to Nationals.

Labour's authenticity problem

Labour's credibility on issues of 'money in politics' is also being challenged by its refusal to be transparent about money involved in last year's public leadership contest - see Claire Trevett's Labour refuses to reveal leadership contest donations. See also, her article MPs face donations dilemma. The party's stance is also condemned on the No Right Turn blog - see: Labour's unacceptable secrecy.

Questions have also been asked about the role of money in the anti-asset sales campaign, and whether the legal limits might have been breached - see David Farrar's Have Labour and Greens broken the CIR Act?.

What can Labour and Cunliffe do?

For ideas about what Cunliffe might do to turn things around, see Sam Durbin's blog post Labour Should Triangulate: Pt 1 - Business Tax. He argues that 'What Labour need to do is take a page out of the Karl Rove handbook and triangulate National back, seizing the agenda, taking the offensive, and attacking National's strength' - largely through 'announcing a radical change in small business taxes'.

A shift to the left is promoted by Chris Trotter in his blog post, Is Cunliffe's Time Running Out?. This won't be easy, according to Trotter, because Cunliffe faces a dilemma: what is required to rally the voters is a more radical and differentiating manifesto, but the 'Labour's caucus isn't capable of agreeing on a radical manifesto' and is more inclined towards a 'National lite' programme, (which will result in disillusionment for the party base and potential voters).

Finally, for some light relief, see RadioLive's Go on, Google search 'David Cunliffe'. He's Labour's top cat and his bio is perfect (purrfect).

Debate on this article is now closed.

- 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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