That the review into Labour's disastrous election defeat was leaked to the media is only the second most predictable thing about it. The most obvious was its emphasis on party unity as the single most important determinant of political success.

"Disunity within caucus seriously undermined Labour's credibility," the report stated. This aligns neatly with a view, ubiquitous in media and political circles, that Labour is prone to destructive factional wrangling; and that MPs were so hopelessly divided under David Cunliffe that it doomed the party's chances. I think it's nonsense.

Let's start with the ABCs. According to proponents of this Disunity Hypothesis, a cadre of malcontents known by that acronym (for Anyone But Cunliffe) ceaselessly undermined the then-leader because they were threatened by his principled approach to politics and revolutionary zeal. The ABCs, in this version of events, are neoliberal careerist scoundrels who would rather lose to John Key than win with David Cunliffe.

It's a riveting parable - plausible at first, but soon upended by its own logic.


It is true that the more pragmatic, career conscious and ideologically muted members of caucus didn't support Cunliffe. This applies to Annette King, Trevor Mallard and Phil Goff - along with others. And yet the very pragmatism and ambition for which these MPs are (unfairly) criticised is why the case against them is so weak: yes, they opposed Cunliffe at the outset, but rallied around him with impressive discipline in the lead-up to the election.

Why? Because they are every bit as desperate to win as their critics contend. In fact, with the notable exception of Mallard's ill-conceived proposal to clone the moa back to life, Cunliffe's frontbench - aghast behind the scenes at his narcissism and poor judgment - were loyal to a fault during the election period. The ABCs exist mainly in the fevered imaginings of Cunliffe loyalists who would rather blame someone else for his failure.

More broadly, the Unity Hypothesis posits that party unity breeds success and, without it, electoral oblivion awaits. This is backwards: it is political success that engenders unity, and the pursuit of unity at all costs is immensely damaging. "I reject turning party unity into an article of faith," UK Labour leadership aspirant Liz Kendall told the Guardian last month, "real unity cannot be achieved by trying to fudge the issues or dodge the difficult questions about the causes of our defeat." Her words resonate uncannily for New Zealand Labour.

Helen Clark is known today for presiding over a successful Government, inspiring great loyalty among colleagues and party faithful. But we gloss over the far messier early phase of her leadership when the toppling of Mike Moore made her deeply unpopular. Labour was tanking, and factional warfare was rife.

Around this time, I was all but cast out of the Labour Party thanks to a small but ill-advised role in a failed coup against Clark in 1996. Years later I was offered jobs with Labour ministers only to be vetoed by the PM's office. By then, I had moved to Melbourne and my experiences with Australian Labor had inured me to factional hardball. "After what you did," my then employer, a Victorian Senator, told me, "I would respect her less if she hadn't blocked you." He was right, and so was Clark.

How did Clark get Labour from dire straits to calmer waters? While she might have vetoed pesky staffers like me, she was superbly adept at co-opting talent from across the factional board. As a result, erstwhile foes like Annette King and Jim Anderton became her fiercest defenders. She demonstrated competence and discipline, winning over sceptical MPs and voters alike. As her popularity inched up, dissension in the ranks melted away - not by endlessly repeating a unity mantra in the face of dire polls, but through winning at the business of politics.

Labour's paranoid fear of dissent is misguided and, worse, risks winnowing the party into irrelevance. For Andrew Little to restore the party's fortunes, he doesn't need everyone to agree with him. He shouldn't demand that MPs and party activists close their eyes, hold their breath and hope that the tide will go out on National eventually.

He should insist on a wide-ranging debate about Labour's present and future, leaving nothing off the table. He should lead reform of the organisation from the bottom up, taking on vested interests, and facilitate discussion inside the party and out about how a centre-left government can make New Zealand stronger, fairer and more prosperous. If he does that, he need not worry: the party will unite behind him. And so will the country.


• Phil Quin is a communications consultant who worked as an adviser to Labour in New Zealand (1989-96) and Australian Labor (1998-2001).