John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Cunliffe safe in spite of poll shock

Labour leader David Cunliffe.
Labour leader David Cunliffe.

The latest Herald-DigiPoll survey may have been bad for Labour in general and very bad for its leader in particular. But there is no chance of it prompting behind-the-scenes moves to dump David Cunliffe.

Things would have to get a lot worse for such a notion to be actively canvassed by MPs in Labour's caucus. And even then it would be unlikely to happen unless the main polls were consistent in showing support for Labour falling from the 29 per cent the party registered in the Herald poll into "time-to-panic territory" below 25 per cent.

Even then it is more than likely nothing would happen unless Cunliffe could be persuaded to walk away quietly for the good of the party. And that, in turn, seems an unlikely prospect under most such scenarios.

When Labour's rank-and-file members and trade union affiliates used their voting power last September to install Cunliffe as leader over the heads of the majority of the caucus, they effectively made the caucus' bed for it at least until the election.

The caucus has no choice but to lie in it.

Just six months from the election, Labour simply does not have the time nor the inclination to run another lengthy leadership contest, which would leave the party rudderless at one of the most crucial stages of the electoral cycle.

Worse, any sign of a concerted effort to push Cunliffe out of the party's top job would likely provoke something that would be little short of civil war within the party in the run-up to an election.

It simply does not bear thinking about.

There is a provision in the party's rules that should the leadership become vacant within three months of a general election, the new leader is chosen by a majority vote of the Labour caucus alone.

But any attempt to exploit a rule designed to deal with emergencies, such as the death of the leader, would be viewed by the wider party as a blatant case of the caucus trying to short-circuit the rights of ordinary members.

It would not work. It would leave the new leader at severe odds with his own party members. The disunity would only make things even harder for Labour to overcome.

Above all, any scenario for Cunliffe to be replaced requires him to go quietly for unity's sake. But why would he willingly give up the job he craved for so long? After all, Cunliffe still has more than a chance of becoming prime minister if the numbers start bouncing more favourably for Labour and the Greens in coming weeks.

The old cliche about the only poll that matters being the one on election day - for once - rings true.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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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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