John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Shaky, flaky Labour makes the job harder

47 comments
Conference ructions won't inspire confidence in voters

If David Cunliffe is the right person to lead the Labour Party as his fans say, why is he not already the leader, asks John Armstrong. Photo / Natalie Slade
If David Cunliffe is the right person to lead the Labour Party as his fans say, why is he not already the leader, asks John Armstrong. Photo / Natalie Slade

Barmy, loopy, stupid, crazy. Last weekend's Labour Party conference had so much political madness on and off the conference floor that the proceedings could well have been deemed certifiable.

The handful of MPs who tried to talk sense into delegates may agree - particularly on the vexed question of how high to set the bar before a leadership ballot involving the whole party membership is triggered.

The MPs' advice was not only ignored, they were shouted down. The rank-and-file saw things very differently. The rewrite of the party's constitution was giving them a rare whiff of grass-roots democracy. They were not about to say "no thanks" even if their votes were being manipulated for nefarious reasons.

As far as the bulk of the 600-plus delegates were concerned, the machinations over the leader and his would-be challenger were irrelevant to the wider good - and woe betide the media for putting such a negative interpretation on something so essentially wholesome.

The more immediate effect of the 40 per cent trigger, which was narrowly approved by the conference, was to leave David Shearer more exposed to a challenge from David Cunliffe.

Shearer is up for re-endorsement in February under the old rules, which stipulated such a vote take place in the middle year of the three-year parliamentary term.

Ever helpful to the current leader, the conference decided the 40 per cent trigger should apply to February's vote.

Again, delegates rationalised this on the grounds of democracy. The glum faces in the Shearer camp on the Saturday night spoke very much to the contrary.

It seemed to escape delegates' notice that they had also handed the National Party a stick with which to beat them.

From now on, the leader will be subject to a post-election endorsement vote by the caucus which must take place no later than three months after polling day.

Failure by a leader to secure more than 60 per cent backing from his or her colleagues will trigger a leadership vote involving the whole party.

The upshot is National will spend the election campaign delightedly claiming the Labour leader cannot guarantee he or she will still be in charge three months after the election.

Moreover, the new method of electing the leader gives a slice of the action to affiliated trade unions. You can imagine how National will exploit that.

The question is why no one - bar Andrew Little and Maryan Street - seemed perturbed by this howler.

When they were not naively setting things up to the advantage of the old enemy, delegates occupied themselves with such pressing matters as lowering the voting age to 16 - something for which there is absolutely no demand - and ordering school boards of trustees to let same-sex couples attend school balls.

Then there was the remit requiring 50 per cent gender equality among officials on the party's electorate committees.

When it was pointed out that most committees had three officials, the conference determined that an extra position such as an assistant treasurer could be created.

This kind of nonsense shows that political correctness is alive and well in Labour.

It speaks of a party that is out of touch with mainstream New Zealand. And it speaks of a leader who has no control over his party.

Fortunately for Shearer, his rival is a dab hand at overplaying his hand.

Members of the David Cunliffe Fan Club need to get real.

They need in particular to ask themselves one rather discomforting question - if, as they say, Cunliffe is the right person to lead the Labour Party to electoral triumph, why is he not already the leader?

Even his enemies in the party concede that had he knuckled down when Labour went into Opposition in late 2008 and done the hard yards as finance spokesman over the following three years, he would have become leader when Phil Goff stepped down.

Cunliffe might not have been liked by many in the party but he could have earned their respect - and that is more important.

Finance was not the only job Cunliffe was hankering for in Opposition.

According to insiders, he also unsuccessfully lobbied the caucus to appoint a second deputy leader. No prizes for guessing who intended filling the job.

Such an unquenchable ambition causes him to exempt himself from the laws of politics to which everyone else adheres.

It was not the first time and - as the past week or so has shown - not the last time that he has overreached himself.

That, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of David Cunliffe. He has most of the attributes required of a leader - intellect, political acumen, the ability to articulate the party's position on something in simple, easily understood language.

He is pragmatic enough to bend when necessary, yet principled enough to stick to principle when the occasion demands.

But like Icarus, the figure of Greek mythology, Cunliffe tends to fly too close to the sun.

Has he forever blown his chances of becoming leader of the Labour Party?

Were Shearer to have a bad 2013, it is conceivable Labour could recall him from backbench exile. But the polls would have to be in disaster territory.

The question now is whether colleagues could work under him. One of this week's most significant statements was made by one such colleague, Chris Hipkins, who accused Cunliffe of undermining the Labour team.

Hipkins is Labour's chief whip and conduit between the leader and the party's back benches.

When the chief whip speaks thus, watch out. It is serious trouble for whoever is in the chief whip's sights.

The other casualty of what John Key describes as the now very "public war" within Labour is the party's ability to project unity and stability.

That is a serious handicap for Labour, which may well have to patch together some kind of governing arrangement which accommodates the reforming zeal of the Greens and the reactionary predilections of New Zealand First.

That is hardly a combination which inspires confidence in its likely longevity - especially if Labour has to rely on the votes of MPs from both parties to pass legislation.

To what extent voters fix on stability arguments is a moot point.

But the traumatic series of events before, during and after Labour's annual conference could hardily have helped.

- 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.

Read more by John Armstrong

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 25 Jul 2014 00:06:29 Processing Time: 492ms