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Labour's problem child looks to have gone red to build votes within party

In the early 1990s Mike Moore - like Jim Bolger in years previous - used to amble about the parliamentary press gallery offices on a Sunday afternoon to ostensibly chew the fat with journalists.

Typically, Moore - who was at that stage Labour leader - would straddle a chair (his arms rested across its back) and eyeball the chosen ones before beginning a political monologue.

One Sunday, he launched into a lengthy rave about "the Secret Speech" that former Soviet Russian President Nikita Khrushchev made at the 20th Communist Party congress in February 1956 when he repudiated Stalin's leadership.


"Mate, they will be doing that to us," he muttered darkly as he suggested it wouldn't be long before the Labour Party (which he suggested was rapidly falling into the hands of the sisterhood and worse) would repudiate the market reforms which the fourth Labour Government implemented in the 1980s. As indeed his successor Helen Clark did, up to the point where rhetoric intersected with reality.

But in a clever series of three speeches - which stop just short of openly undermining his boss, David Shearer - the man who may yet be his nemesis has planted his own red flag by urging that New Zealand (and by implication his Labour colleagues) gloriously defeat once and for all the forces which were unleashed here by the Chicago school of economics and its remarkable doyen Milton Friedman.

I'm talking here about David Cunliffe of course.

Unlike Khrushchev, Cunliffe is not about to accuse the Labour hierarchy of being "enemies of the people". For one, he is not the leader and is in a vulnerable position. His attacks are ostensibly focused on John Key. But keen students of politics detect a hidden agenda.

In a previous life Cunliffe was one of capitalism's handmaidens. He spent time with Boston Consulting; his wife is a top environment lawyer; they live at a very nice address in Auckland's Herne Bay.

But he was marked out for destruction by his colleagues when Clark (too openly) took him under her wing when he entered politics.

The general rule of politics is to "breathe through your nose" when beginning a parliamentary career; pay endless obeisance to the leader (this is usually achieved by repeating the leader's name at every opportunity as, for instance, does Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye in her Facebook announcements detailing the latest event where she has been the PM's handbag in New Zealand's commercial capital) but not complacent to the point of being brain dead by the time you are considered for a senior role.

Cunliffe never really played that game and made no secret of his own obvious intellectual attributes.

So, it's not surprising that the "ABC Club" (Anyone but Cunliffe) quickly sank his chances, levering the political neophyte Shearer into the Labour leadership against the party's clear preference for the politician who can cut the mustard in Parliament with every bit as much venom and vigour as Sir Michael Cullen used to display.

Shearer in turn stacked his front bench with more neophytes who have yet to land serious blows on John Key's front-row.

Like Clark, Shearer is an internationalist. In his bones he does not stand for the kind of reversion to cloth cap ideology that Cunliffe has been nakedly embracing.

Shearer is clever. But rather flat in his political demeanour. He does not like being outflanked by a colleague with more obvious political wattage.

So Labour has a problem.

It's the kind of problem that the Beijing regime had with former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai until his wife, Gu Kailai, was sprung as the murderer of Briton Neil Heywood.

Among the uniformly greying men who comprise China's politburo, Bo stuck out by executing a hard-left turn and launching the Chongqing model. This was a clear challenge to his colleagues. But as Kevin Lu wrote in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine headlined "The Chongqing model worked": "Bo Xilai might be a crook but he was actually pretty good at his job."

Just like Bo, Cunliffe is trying to recreate a new left agenda to attract those who have been disadvantaged by the wealth gap.

Cunliffe has suggested big investment by the Government in industry, citing the NZ Steel plant of the Muldoon Government.

As with Bo in China, Cunliffe has launched a serious challenge to the prevailing ideology of his party's political wing. Does he seriously believe the nostrums in his three speeches or has he cynically "gone red" to build votes within the party at large. And will his colleagues succeed in burying him? The ABC club can't place Cunliffe under house arrest. They might just have to engage instead.

Fran O'Sullivan's column will next appear on September 8.