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Gordon Campbell on the Labour Party ructions

Gordon Campbell on the Labour Party ructions

One of the credibility problems for the Labour Party is that the party membership is considerably to the left of both David Cunliffe and David Shearer. In that sense,Cunliffe’s articulate speeches earlier this year and Shearer’s heartfelt pitch to the party conference on the weekend were both projections into a political space that neither of them comfortably inhabit. Therefore, once normal political activity resumes, Shearer could well revert to previous settings – whereby, in line with an MMP division of labour, most of the heavy lifting on the left is done by the likely coalition partner (the Greens) while Labour seeks to occupy the non-threatening political centre.

For all that, Shearer emerged from the party conference far stronger than he went in. If he has at times during 2012 looked like this generation’s Bill Rowling – a nice guy out of his depth – he delivered a conference combo of housing policy strongly in tune with party tradition, and a rousing final speech that re-stated the party’s convictions with genuine heat. Like Jim Bolger, Shearer could be one of those politicians who is at his best only when his back is right up against the wall.

If so, Shearer will have plenty of opportunity to show his mettle over the coming weeks and months. At the party conference,Labour adopted a new formula for triggering a leadership challenge. As Chris Trotter pointed out on RNZ this morning, this move was a rebuke to the way the caucus had trampled all over party sentiment last year in its choice of Shearer as leader. Having invited the party to express a preference, the caucus then ignored it. If a leadership vote was held in February 2013 and with significant input from beyond the parliamentary caucus, it could well see Shearer replaced by Cunliffe. In line with the old maxim that nothing focuses the mind quite like the prospect of imminent execution, Shearer’s supporters have immediately floated plans to bring forward the vote. Unfortunately, an early vote under the old rules would run the obvious risk of being a Pyrrhic victory, motivated mainly by self interest on Shearer’s part – and it would hardly be in the spirit of democratization that the conference has just endorsed.

Cunliffe, wisely, has chosen the tactics of asymmetric warfare – which entails pledging support for now, while keeping options open for a contest on grounds more to his liking. Clearly, Team Shearer would prefer a premature burial for Cunliffe to avoid the leadership question festering over the summer – but it may do so, regardless. And so it should. Because if Shearer does not feel confident that he can hold his own party together behind him and win a vote in February, what chance does he have of convincing the entire country in 2014? An early vote, whichever way you try to dress it up, would be a sign of weakness on Shearer’s part.

One can feel some sympathy for Shearer’s predicament. He was elected leader less than a year ago. As Matt McCarten pointed out on the weekend, under Shearer’s leadership Labour has closed the gap on National by ten percentage points, and the opposition grouping of Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First is now consistently leading the governing coalition in the polls. (That reliance on NZ First is probably illusory, and could well turn today’s lead into a mirage, come 2014.) True, John Key remains the country’s most popular politician and its most skilled communicator – which should make Shearer’s inroads as Leader of the Opposition seem all the more noteworthy. Moreover, as McCarten and others have argued, while activists and commentators may feel impatient with Shearer’s tentative style, his personal poll ratings are still streets ahead of what Helen Clark was achieving at a similar point as leader.

All these rational arguments have been eclipsed by the conflict with Cunliffe who – like it or not – is able to articulate Labour’s positions clearly and forcefully in a way that Shearer usually struggles to match. There is a sense that Cunliffe has tacked left within a centrist Labour Party in order to locate a convenient source of support – but in doing so, he has tapped a level of genuine frustration within the party, and he pulled Shearer leftwards on the weekend. For that alone, Labour should be grateful for Cunliffe’s efforts. It is all very well to talk about the need for unity, but a unity that merely wallpapers over the party’s real divisions is simply a cosmetic job done for the benefit of the media, and it will not last. Either Labour has to choose to become a genuine party of the left again and contest the entire spectrum of centre left issues effectively with the Greens – or the party rank and file will need to fully and consciously embrace an MMP logic whereby a Shearer-led party positions itself deliberately in the fuzzy centre and willingly cedes the party’s traditional ground to the Greens, with all of the patience and discipline that this will require. It can’t do both things at once.

While it works out its identity crisis, Labour’s front bench can ill afford to lose Cunliffe. Shearer and his team have struggled all year to get traction on the government, especially in comparison to the Greens who are routinely faster off the mark, with a far more pointed message. (That’s the advantage of not having to second-guess your own instincts.) At the same time and quite perversely, Labour MP Shane Jones has been allowed by Shearer to repeatedly run amuck across the portfolio domains of his colleagues to launch attacks on the one coalition partner that Labour plainly needs in order to govern. That nonsense has to be stopped.

Given these rather more deep-seated problems, it could be argued that shuffling the leadership deck would be only a cosmetic fix. There’s some truth to that. (The strategic positioning of the party in an MMP environment is a far more critical issue in need of consensus.) Even so, if in February – or even as late as May, after three months of parliamentary combat - Labour emerged with either a newly minted leader in Cunliffe or a strongly mandated one in Shearer, it would give the party fresh momentum just when the Key government will be heading into trouble again, over the legal status of its asset sales programme.

This re-birthing process cannot be avoided for the sake of some short term show of “unity’ staged to please the political pundits. Of late, Labour has been led by someone who cannot manage either his party’s best talent or the rogue elements within his own caucus – while the alternative option as leader seems to be deeply resented by many of the senior Labour MPs. Too bad for the party faithful. Evidently, they will need to wait a little while longer for a leadership that’s able to get really tough on John Key, rather than on its own dissatisfied elements.

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