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Gordon Campbell on Cunliffe’s Last Stand

Gordon Campbell on Cunliffe’s Last Stand

Right now, embattled Labour leader David Cunliffe has three options. None of them are particularly attractive for him personally, or for the Labour Party. In scenario one, Cunliffe could resign immediately and trigger a leadership vote among the caucus, the party membership and unions affiliates. This would be a high risk gambit in that it would pre-empt any review of the Labour election campaign and would be likely to open up new divisions. While one can safely predict the caucus would vote against Cunliffe, the wider party and union response would be unpredictable, given that Cunliffe (ineptly) ran a centrist neo-Goff/Shearer campaign this year and not the left wing campaign that those who voted him into the leadership were expecting him to pursue. If the wider party/unions sullenly voted for him as the least worst option while the caucus still rejected him, its hard to see how the cause of unity would be enhanced.

Option Two is just a variation of the first, without the resignation. Under the Labour constitution, there has to be a leadership vote within three months of an election and the leader needs to command a clear majority – 60% of caucus plus one – to avoid an election involving the wider party/trade unions. Yesterday, Cunliffe’s preference seemed to be to hold the caucus vote as soon as possible. Apparently, he is willing to dare the caucus to vote him out, to downplay that likely loss as a mere procedural issue, and then ride through the subsequent fallout if and when caucus votes him out, and the wider party/ unions then vote him right back in again. Obviously, any shotgun wedding of this sort would be a recipe for simmering resentments and a messy divorce, in about 12 months time.

The third option is to do nothing for as long as possible, until a comprehensive review can (a) provide the caucus with ammunition to convince Cunliffe loyalists and the wider party/unions that Cunliffe is a lost cause, and thereby (b) buy time for his replacements to promote their virtues.

The main problem with that third option is that it would virtually immobilize Labour well into 2015, and would open up opportunities for the Greens and New Zealand First to fill the vacuum, as de facto leaders of the opposition. The RMA reforms and the government’s workplace legislation (which among other things, will further undermine collective bargaining) will be the first battlegrounds of National’s third term – and all the opposition parties will be measured by their responses. Within Labour, how Cunliffe and his rivals for leadership propose to respond to the workplace legislation will determine the leadership choice, if that still remains in abeyance by that time. On the bright side, the workplace legislation will provide a useful external rallying point to promote unity behind who-ever is at the helm, come next February.

As this point, the two main alternatives to Cunliffe – Grant Robertson and David Shearer – have both been central to Labour’s strategic choices over the past three years and cannot avoid being tarnished by Saturday’s loss. Any comprehensive review of the election result would have to regard it as the culmination of problems of disunity, policy direction and presentation that go back to 2011 at least, or even to 2008. For that reason, the most effective break with the past and the most electable option bet for 2017 is probably a Stuart Nash/Jacinda Ardern ticket.

There is always, of course, the Dalai Lama option. This would involve a trio of Labour elders (chosen by caucus) roaming the countryside and seeking out a 10 year old re-incarnation of David Lange, who could then be rigorously schooled in Labour martial arts to win the 2030 election, by which time Prime Minister Paula Bennett will be finishing her third term in office. Meaning: no one expects caucus unity to break out overnight, not within Labour.

Responsibility…Since the readiness to put up your hand to take your share of the blame is in short supply within Labour ‘s ranks, there’s really only one option for this morning’s music link. Always good to find an excuse for listening to the great Blind Willie Johnson….

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