Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Politics round-up: Labour's war and peace

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New Labour Party deputy leader David Parker, watched by new party leader David Cunliffe, during question time in Parliament. Photo / Marty Melville
New Labour Party deputy leader David Parker, watched by new party leader David Cunliffe, during question time in Parliament. Photo / Marty Melville

Peace is breaking out in Labour, with bitter factionalism melting away leaving only unity. That may be what Labour desperately wants us to believe, but beneath the surface there is turmoil and bloodletting. For a clever and very funny dramatisation of how some in the Labour Party caucus might be taking the election of David Cunliffe as leader, it's well worth watching the 4-minute video of Trevor Mallard's Downfall. It's an old joke, and perhaps unfair to characterise Mallard in that way, but it brilliantly conveys the visceral feelings that some of the so-called ABC MPs might have about Cunliffe's victory.

The bloodletting

A certain amount of anxiety in this situation is normal, of course. When power is re-arranged in any political party there are going to be winners and losers. In order to ultimately bring about a 'new normal' or some sort of harmony, there first needs to be a degree of bloodletting. This is a theory well put by Cameron Slater in his blogpost, The need for blood. He says 'Winners need to show why they are in charge and losers need to know they aren't. To my mind David Cunliffe needs to knife someone very publicly and very hard, then line up the shocked survivors and ask who is to be next?'. He then gives advice about who that someone should be. For more strategic advice see Dan Satherley's TV3 website item, Cunliffe's options: Olive branch or knife?

Trevor Mallard appears to be the leading contender amongst nearly all commentators for the axe.

Duncan Garner makes the best case for Mallard's political execution in Swallowing dead rats - now ditch Mallard. He puts it very frankly: 'Mallard's time is up. The public tired of him years ago. He has been one of the main protagonists in the fight against Cunliffe. He should be dealt to. He has done his time in NZ politics'.

This is also a theme in Jane Clifton's online Listener column, Labour's own red wedding. She says that 'lust for caucus blood-spillage within the party appears pretty strong. If he doesn't wreak vengeance, his supporters will be bitterly disappointed'. So who's for the chop? Clifton: 'The smart money is on Cunliffe restricting utu to the least cuddly of his opponents: top of the demotion list, Trevor Mallard and Clayton Cosgrove. Clare Curran, who has for a second time caused fur to fly in the thick of an election campaign through injudicious blurts on social media, may join them in the dogbox'. Of course, Mallard has already been demoted, losing his prized position as Shadow Leader of the House and his dreams of becoming Speaker in a future Labour-led government have seemingly been dashed.

Patrick Gower also advocates Cunliffe taking an aggressive approach in the early days of his leadership but says it should be a sophisticated and measured strategy: 'It will have to be 'Cunliffe's Butchery' but with a surgeon's scalpel rather than a meat cleaver' - see: Carpe Diem - Cunliffe must go hard.

But does all this really amount to 'blood on the floor'? The Standard says that the demotions of Mallard, Hipkins etc, were carried out calmly without 'vindictiveness, and little ground for complaint from those demoted. And, just as importantly, they were done cleanly and with authority. No more vacillating, weak leadership for Labour' - see: Clean and neat.

There will also be casualties when it comes to party professionals working in Parliament. As usual, Cameron Slater has some of the gossip - see, for example, his blogpost, News from inside the Labour Leader's office. But are Cunliffe and Labour being hypocritical in sacking staff? David Farrar suggests this is the case in his blogpost, Will Cunliffe keep his word and apply Part 6A to his own office.

The significance of Parker instead of Robertson

The mechanism of unifying Labour through the appointment of Grant Robertson as Cunliffe's deputy has not been employed, to the surprise of just about everyone. For the best analysis of this, see Colin Espiner's blogpost, The revenge of the nerds. He says that the 'failure of Cunliffe and Robertson to agree on the latter taking the deputy's role sends a clear signal that the two factions which caused the leadership spill are very much still alive and bleeding'. John Armstrong has also argued that 'the best interests of the Labour Party would have been better served by Robertson - as the leadership contender who represented the anti-Cunliffe faction in the caucus - burying the hatchet and becoming deputy leader. It was almost his duty to the party to do that' - see: All aboard the Cunliffe train?. Armstrong suggests that we're seeing the cracks being papered over rather than the truly healed.

Similarly, TVNZ's Corin Dann asks: Is Labour unity talk for real?. But he makes a very strong case for why Parker is a good choice as deputy: 'When looking at the big picture - the election battle next year - the decision to appoint David Parker as deputy makes sense in one way at least. Putting the Finance spokesman at number 2 in the caucus is clear signal to the public of the importance that a Cunliffe-led Labour party will put on the economy. And this is very important, as National will try to leverage its economic management in the campaign and paint Labour with the Greens as risky'.

The big question being asked is: Did Robertson refuse, or Cunliffe not offer? There are various theories on this, but Tracy Watkins puts forward the most convincing in her column, MPs not about to make new job easier. She says, 'it was Mr Cunliffe who had most to gain from offering Mr Robertson the deputy leadership, and Mr Robertson who had most to lose from accepting it.... Camp Cunliffe were in no doubt following Sunday's election that a Cunliffe-Robertson ticket was the dream team. More than symbolism was at stake - throwing his support behind Cunliffe would have been a signal to Mr Robertson's supporters that he would act as a unifying force. The failure to secure that outcome will only give fuel to speculation that he and his supporters instead expect to live to fight another day'.

This is a point very well made by today's Herald editorial, Robertson move shows peace still some way off. It is suggested that Robertson has decided - probably in consultation with the wider ABC club - that his future ambitions, and those of his allies, are better served by not being constrained by the position of deputy. The editorial says, 'The decision suggests he has not put his leadership ambition aside for the time being. If he was content to wait he would have continued in the deputy role, an ideal position for keeping your name to the fore and proving yourself capable in the leader's absences. But an ambitious and honourable deputy is also supposed to give the leader unconditional support. That perhaps was the obstacle for Mr Robertson continuing in a job he has reputedly done well'.

Similarly, today's Dominion Post editorial sees the surprise demotion of Robertson as 'an indication Mr Robertson is fearful of becoming entangled in the wreckage should the Cunliffe experiment capsize. It may also be an indication that Mr Robertson has not yet abandoned his own leadership ambitions. Whatever the case, Mr Cunliffe has grounds for concern' - see: Labour papers over cracks.

For more on David Parker - as well as the likely future of Parker's two other Dunedin-based Labour colleagues - see Dene MacKenzie's Parker's links give Labour South cover.

On the issue of Labour's ostensible unity, the NBR's Rob Hosking has an insightful, but paywalled, column: Cunliffe's need for unity will come at high price (paywalled). He says, '"Unity" was the word on the lips of all Labour MPs and party apparatchiks yesterday. Can Mr Cunliffe unify the party? was one of the questions at yesterday's press conference. Yes and no was the answer. Yes of course he can; but the party is unifed anyway. Apparently. Unity? Labour has unity to burn. Truckloads of the stuff. They're practically giving it away. Well, yes. One of the things about unity is that if you have it you don't really need to talk about it'. Hosking also argues that although Cunliffe is sometimes compared with Kevin Rudd and Tony Blair, he's actually more akin to 1970s British Labour leader Harold Wilson who was elected leader on the basis of leftwing support and then allegedly wrecked both the economy and party.

Further reshuffling expected

So, how else might power be re-arranged within Labour in the short-term? Martyn Bradbury was about the only commentator to pick David Parker to become Cunliffe's deputy, and so it's worth looking at some of his other predictions and advice in his typically idiosyncratic blogpost, Cunliffe's Shadow Cabinet. (See also Bradbury's Winners & losers).

Tim Watkin also discusses the likely changes in personnel (Curran to be dropped, Twyford to stay in Housing, Goff for Foreign Affairs, etc). He also astutely outlines why he thinks Cunliffe is in a much stronger position than he would have been had he won the leadership at an earlier time - see: To Cunliffe the spoils - so don't spoil the chance. Similarly, a Press editorial rather cheekily suggests that Cunliffe has 'one huge advantage not enjoyed by his two immediate predecessors. Unlike Phil Goff and David Shearer, Cunliffe will not have to endure having a David Cunliffe as a colleague' - see: Cunliffe's main tasks lie ahead.

So far Cunliffe appears to be introducing dynamism and indeed dynamite to the Labour Party. After three hyper-cautious party leaders, Cunliffe is a refreshing change and has impressed many political journalists already. John Armstrong has been very positive about Cunliffe lately. Here's Armstrong reporting on Cunliffe's first press conference: 'What was noticeable - in marked contrast to Shearer's efforts - was the consummate ease with which Cunliffe dealt with all the questions... Cunliffe answered every question in a crisp, straightforward manner. When he did not have a ready answer, he said so. When he did have a point to make it was made quickly, confidently and firmly' - see: Tough-talking 'war footing' Cunliffe clear and concise. Armstrong has produced some other important columns on the matter worth reading: It has to be Cunliffe for Labour's top job, Rank-and-file make pragmatic choice for party's future, and Time for olive branches in Labour caucus.

Another firm believer in Cunliffe's ability is Brian Edwards, who has blogged to say that the new leader represents a 'game changer' for the Labour Party - see: Congratulations David - and why John Key's days are numbered.

Of course Cunliffe didn't quite live up to such expectations in his first parliamentary appearance - which is best evaluated in Jane Clifton's Caucus of laughter greets faux pas and John Armstrong's Cunliffe and Key's first fight a little lightweight.

There should be no doubt that Cunliffe's leadership victory was absolutely decisive. Some media have reported it as a 'narrow' victory, or concentrated on a supposed lack of support for Cunliffe in the caucus vote. Yet, as Gordon Campbell points out, 'The party membership and its affiliated unions voted strongly for Cunliffe and even in caucus the final vote was fairly evenly split, at a narrow 53 per cent to 47 per cent preference for Robertson' - see: Timely promotion for Cunliffe. It really was a landslide victory for Cunliffe, and the key MP voting statistic is the 53% vs 47% - or 18 votes for Robertson vs 16 for Cunliffe which comes from taking the second preference into account to get a true picture of the two-way race. This means that Cunliffe is hardly the lame duck leader that some are ignorantly or mischievously suggesting.

For more on this and other concise reactions to leadership results, see my blogpost, Top tweets about Cunliffe wining Labour leadership. And for immediate reaction to yesterday's reshuffle, see: Top tweets about David Parker becoming Labour's Deputy Leader. In addition, David Farrar has put together a very plausible and detailed table of How the caucus may have voted.

Cunliffe's radical new left Labour Party?

John Key and National are happily painting Cunliffe and Labour as having lurched to the left - a line of attack we can expect to be continuously used. But is the leftward shift permanent and genuine, or a fleeting manoeuvre by Cunliffe used to win the primary leadership contest? Interestingly, it's those on the political right who are the most questioning of Cunliffe's supposed leftwing radicalism. Fran O'Sullivan says 'There is considerable room for doubt over whether Cunliffe really embraces socialism. Or whether it is just convenient window-dressing to boost support in the Labour Party at large to make up for the considerable distrust he faces within the caucus' - see: Leadership could be a poisoned chalice. O'Sullivan also reflects on how the business community sees Parker, Cunliffe etc - see: Stronger Labour team on the attack.

Matthew Hooton is even more certain that Cunliffe will compromise and moderate his leftist radicalism: 'Cunliffe has encouraged his supporters to believe he sits on the political spectrum somewhere between Hone Harawira and Che Guevara. Through the leadership campaign, billions of dollars of new spending was promised, along with a 33% increase in the minimum wage and a complete reversal of 30 years of "neo-liberal" economic policy. In reality, Mr Cunliffe is nowhere near as left as he has made out. He understands just as well as anyone the remorseless logic and empirical success of the median voter model. The Cunliffe ultras are about to experience the same disappointment as the Business Roundtable suffered when Dr Brash decided to make race relations his signature issue instead of privatisation' - see Hooton's paywalled NBR column, Cunliffe gamble set to begin.

Any shift back towards the centre will inevitably bring some disillusionment to supporters. As Tracy Watkins says, 'Some of Cunliffe's supporters, meanwhile, will be brought down to earth when they realise he is not the cult-like hero of a left-wing revolution that they have come to believe in' - see: New leader's cult status sure to fade (http://bit.ly/1f0onoR). And in order to get in first with his grievances, Scott Yorke satirically blogs, What happened to the change you promised?

Certainly Cunliffe and Labour are not short of advice being proffered to them about ideology, strategy and style. One of the best is Josie Pagani's Five Challenges for David Cunliffe.

Other must-read items

Cunliffe is already somewhat of a household name, but for an excellent backgrounder on Labour's new leader, see Andrea Vance's Loved and loathed: the polarising politician, and Long path from Point to politics. And for a less serious backgrounder, see Duncan Wilson's What does 'Cunliffe' mean?

Finally, profiles of the new leader are parodied in Ben Uffindell's Civilian blogpost, Who is David Cunliffe?, and David Cunliffe flies to San Francisco in effort to be on TV, Jessica Williams mixes pop and politics by examining Cunliffe's love of Joy Division in Your new favourite band, Cameron Slater compiles a video of David Cunliffe's Greatest Hits, Scott Yorke combines the two big news stories of the moment with his Imperator Fish blogpost, Team Oracle USA challenges for leadership of the Labour Party, and Steve Braunias reveals the Secret diary of Grant Robertson.

- 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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