Late Saturday night, while Labour Party workers were still cleaning up the blood from the worst electoral thrashing the party had received since 1922, leader David Cunliffe was busy on his computer trying to save his skin. In a mass mailing to members and supporters he said, "Let's congratulate ourselves" on "a campaign well-fought" and declared his intention to stay on as leader.
Just how he can declare himself "immensely proud" of a campaign that resulted in Labour receiving 22,353 fewer election night votes than in 2011 against a two-term National Government is a mystery. Only measured against the 2011 election night calamity when Labour lost 165,000 votes on its 2008 result, does Saturday's result start to look less than a total disaster.
After the 2011 debacle, leader Phil Goff immediately fell on his sword, to be replaced first by David Shearer, and then when he was judged to be under-performing, by Cunliffe. Now it's Cunliffe's turn. His departure seems inevitable. Whether kicking and screaming or gracefully is over to him. The problem for Labour is, who next? The retread, David Shearer; the steady back room policy wonk, David Parker; or the new generation team of Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern?
Labour's challenge is not just solving its leadership problems. It also has to decide whether it wants, in two years' time, to celebrate its 100th birthday celebrations as the generally accepted, centre-left "broad church" alternative to the National Party. Under MMP, this is no longer a given. Since the election, both Green co-leader Russel Norman and New Zealand First's Winston Peters have made claims to the leadership of the Opposition. A try-on for sure, but with Labour stuck in its present doldrums, is it any wonder the mice are playing?
While Labour struggles to find a role in the Key era, its natural constituency has been drifting off in growing numbers to dabble with alternative roads to nirvana. To the Greens and New Zealand First in particular. Last Saturday, Labour candidates received 33.58 per cent of the votes. Calamitously for the party, nearly 9 per cent of those voters then gave their party vote - the tick used to decide the make-up of Parliament - to a rival party. That was even worse than the 8 per cent difference in 2011, when Labour deliberately played down Phil Goff and Labour on its electioneering material, fearing both were off-putting to voters.
Some of the worst instances occurred in the electorates of the leadership contenders.
In Mt Albert, one-time leader David Shearer got 17,933 votes, twice the 9020 cast for his party. The Greens benefited by around 4000 and National by around 3000.
In New Lynn, Cunliffe received 14,400, his party just 10,160, with NZ First and National the apparent beneficiaries of this vote splitting.
In Wellington Central, Grant Robertson scored 16,102, more than double the 7251 cast in favour of the party he wants to lead. Across the land, the Greens were the largest beneficiary, along with NZ First and National. What a different story for Labour and Cunliffe today if the current leadership hopefuls had duplicated the pattern in Mangere, for example, where Su'a William Sio stormed home with 16,130, and 15,100 of his supporters ticked Labour as well. The majority of those that didn't appear to have backed NZ First.
Labour's biggest challenge is to restore the "broad church" approach so successful for Helen Clark and now John Key, of reaching out to the middle ground where most voters would claim to belong. John Key has proved masterful, embracing Act to death, welcoming the disaffected ex-Labour Maori refugees into his Cabinet, and a few weeks ago, dipping into the left's gift store and promising free doctor's visits to kids up to the age of 13.
Labour's first task in marketing itself as back in business as the dominant party of the centre-left is to reclaim back into the fold the nearly 10 per cent who happily voted for a Labour candidate but then gave their key party vote to NZ First, the Greens and even National.
Cunliffe seems to think there's some middle way. He said on Sunday that he regretted not campaigning alongside the Greens, who earlier in the year had sought a joint agreement. While rejecting a merger, he now says "There is potential for us to operate in a more cohesive way".
In the battle for votes that's crazy talk. That's if Labour wants to ensure its place as the dominant party on the left of New Zealand politics. The Greens are deadly rivals, not just some niche refuge for tree huggers. They have policies on transport, education, you name it. Plus they have something Labour doesn't have - stable and engaging leadership.
If Labour were to jump in bed with them, I'm not betting on the 98-year-old to survive the night.
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