Cunliffe fighting for survival
David Cunliffe has not chosen to go quietly. After resigning as Labour leader, Cunliffe has offered himself as a candidate in the contest to elect Labour’s next leader.
Ballots will soon be held among the parliamentary caucus, trade union affiliates and the wider party membership.
After only one year in the job Cunliffe evidently feels – with some justification – that he should not bear the entire blame for Labour’s crushing defeat.
It must be especially galling for Cunliffe that in the name of renewal, he is being pressured to stand aside so that former deputy leader Grant Robertson can take over the reins.
Arguably, Robertson has been more continuously involved since 2011 in shaping Labour’s policy content and direction than even Cunliffe. In that respect, handing over to Robertson would reward the same senior Labour MPs and party mandarins who have been managing the party’s strategic decisions since 2011.
Ironically, the Anyone But Cunliffe bloc (aka ABC) of MPs may have only themselves to blame for the looming leadership contest.
It was because the ABC group thrust David Shearer down every- one’s throat as leader in 2011 that the party members and unions rebelled, and created the current three-pronged voting system that Cunliffe is hoping will now deliver him a fresh mandate.
Ironically, the National Party offers Cunliffe recent precedent for grimly hanging on.
Labour scored a dismal 24.69 per cent of the vote on election night. In July 2002, Bill English led the National Party to an even worse 20.93 % of the vote.
Not only did English refuse to resign, he bitterly fought the coup attempt that ultimately toppled him by the narrowest of margins 15 months later.
What the next vote for the Labour leadership is all about is securing a mandate to lead. Clearly, Cunliffe is expecting to lose the caucus vote, while winning among the union affiliates and wider membership. That faith may be misguided.
Already, Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union head Bill Newson has advised the media against taking trade union support for Cunliffe as a given this time around.
A year ago, Cunliffe was elected as a ‘‘change’’ leader on the expectation he would promote Labour as a strong alternative to the current economic orthodoxy.
Instead, to promote caucus unity he seemed to cave into the ABC policy positions.
Many who voted for Cunliffe last time in the belief that he would fight the election as a strong, traditional left- wing Labour leader may not do so again.
More to the point, Cunliffe’s image is so tarnished that he may seem unelectable, in 2017.
Therefore, the wider membership and union affiliates may well vote – through gritted teeth if need be – for Robertson, as the best available option for shoring up Labour’s support with the general public.
If that happens, Labour would at least avoid the nightmare scenario whereby Cunliffe gets voted back by everyone except his own colleagues.
Amid Labour’s current gloom, National is proof that it is possible to return triumphant from the brink of extinction.
Cunliffe can even look to Bill English as inspiration, in that a role as a respected Finance Minister in a future Labour Government may still be a possible career outcome for him.
On current signs though, that opportunity may not arise during this decade.