What a shambles. What a disgrace.
Labour’s circular firing squad reveals many things about the state of that party. Firstly it reveals a lack of character on the part of its leader, a man incapable of leading by example, by stature, or by design. Secondly it reveals a lack of cohesion between the caucus and its wider constituent bodies. Thirdly it reveals the jealousies that exist at all levels of the party.
Shearer’s ritual dismissal of Cunliffe is not a new strategy. Shearer and his lieutenants Trevor Mallard and David Parker have taken a leaf out of Julia Gillard’s book. When faced with destabilisation from Kevin Rudd, Gillard wheeled out her caucus surrogates to denounce Rudd as a demagogue unfit to lead his party or his country. Whereas Gillard had Wayne Swan, Simon Crean and Nicola Roxon, Shearer had Hipkins and Faafoi front the media to denounce Cunliffe as a destabilising force within the caucus.
Next Shearer demanded endorsement at the point of a gun, no debate, no dissent. Having achieved ‘unanimous’ endorsement from his colleague, Shearer then dismissed Cunliffe to the back bench. In effect Cunliffe is now the excuse for low opinion polls, a man who is to serve as toilet paper for Shearer’s failed leadership, languishing at the bottom of the Labour Party’s political long-drop.
The problem with this scenario however is Cunliffe alone is not to blame. Labour has yet to move to a level of political support it realised when it lost office in 2008. This is extraordinary. Students of history will know Bill Rowling lost the 1975 election, but outpolled Robert Muldoon in 1978. Mike Moore led Labour to a landslide defeat in 1990, but he came within one seat of winning in 1993.
Shearer leads a party approaching its fifth year in opposition and he shows no sign of leading a recovery. Relying of a coalition of friends based on Russel Norman and Hone Harawira is a declaration of defeat, the conclusion of a failure of leadership that he Shearer’s responsibility and Shearer’s alone.
The leader of the Labour Party is incompetent, mangles his words, struggles with basic policy concepts, and has little or no feel for human behaviour. How does he expect his diminishing band of party members to raise money and knock on doors when he has just thrown their preferred candidate for leader under the wheel of a bus?
And Shearer need not think his so-called KiwiBuild policy will make a blind bit of difference. Communism-meets-lotto housing based on cheap homes situated on cheap land around train stations is hardly going to motivated 200,000 mortgage-paying voters to switch their party vote from National to Labour.
Cunliffe is no better off today than he was last week. Yes he has been demoted off the front bench, but in a caucus of 34 led by David Shearer, it was never likely that Cunliffe was going to feature in a government any time soon. Once Shearer accommodates Norman, Turei, Harawira, Sue Bradford, and a mandatory quota of feminist unionists and others from the Rainbow sector, what role would a white heterosexual male possibly have in a future Labour-led government?
However Cunliffe alone deserves the odium that he is coping. A weak-kneed to Shearer’s ultimatum is a disappointing end. Yes, Cunliffe should not have hedged at the weekend conference; the smart thing would have been to publicly endorse Shearer there and then. But having been called on to front up, Cunliffe should have done just that and tested the resolve of the Labour caucus. Having lost, he could have then resigned and moved to the back bench rather than being dumped by a political featherweight.
Cunliffe has been unwise to rely upon the likes of Charles Chauvel, Moana Mackey and Louisa Wall. None of his core supporters represent the aspirations of mortgageville New Zealand, and none of them were likely to have the fortitude to go through the fire on behalf of their candidate.
Cunliffe is a vain and flawed man, and someone who is deserves to be disliked by his colleagues. But Shearer is ten times worse, a leader who seeks strategic direction from Trevor Mallard.
Well might Labour members throw up their hands in horror. As John Key rightly points out, how can they run the country if they can’t even run a conference?
The correct response now is for Labour’s rank and file to force all MPs to face selection contests. A contest of ideas is the only way to force its caucus to align with the party that carries it.