Wednesday 8 August 2012

Meltdown: Labour's Caucus Rivalries Turn Toxic

Uneasy Seat: David Shearer is a poor communicator and David Cunliffe communicates very well (mostly because he has something to say). It's a surefire recipe for internal party tensions - which are now on display. But the "two very senior MPs" who've been telling toxic tales to TV3's Duncan Garner cannot change the fact that Mr Shearer's leadership has failed to inspire.

THAT DAVID CUNLIFFE’S ENEMIES waited until he was overseas before attacking him bears testimony to his growing political strength. For “two very senior [Labour] MPs” to brief against their caucus colleague to TV3’s Political Editor, Duncan Garner, the ABC (Anybody But Cunliffe) faction must be very worried indeed.

The cynical calculation that persuaded Mr Cunliffe’s enemies to unite behind Mr Shearer in December 2011 has delivered a very paltry harvest. The public was prepared to give Labour’s new boss a fair go at growing into a credible Opposition leader, but their patience isn’t endless. Above all other things, a political leader must be a communicator – and Mr Shearer isn’t. Not surprisingly, the major public opinion polls are all now registering declining levels of public support for both Mr Shearer and his party.

To gain some idea of just how poor a communicator Mr Shearer is, pay a visit to the NZ on Screen website and watch the 1973 interview of Labour Leader and Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, by the celebrated British broadcaster, David Frost. Not only does “Big Norm” speak in fully-formed sentences, unpunctuated by umms, errs and you-knows, but with the calm assurance and persuasive eloquence that only a person in absolute command of his facts, his thoughts, his convictions and, most importantly, himself, is able to project.

We are told that Mr Shearer’s minders have engaged the former broadcaster, Ian Fraser, to help their boss communicate more effectively. His chances of success must be rated as low. It is precisely because Mr Shearer is unsure of his facts, confused in his thinking and uncertain of his convictions that he finds it so difficult to remain in command of himself and, therefore, of what he says. It is significant that the most favourable reports of Mr Shearer’s communication skills have both come from social gatherings where little more than agreeable emoting was required (Backbenches and the EPMU Conference).

Mr Cunliffe is, of course, a highly accomplished communicator – especially on television. More important than his aptitude for speaking in coherent sentences, however, is his ability to persuade and even, on occasion, to inspire his listeners. The contrast between himself and his leader could hardly be starker (or more likely to enrage those rivals who suffer by comparison).

Mr Cunliffe’s growth as a politician is the product of his willingness to subject his ideas about what politics means in the Twenty-First Century to a searching and, above all, critical analysis. It has led him to question many of the economic and social assumptions which currently inform the Labour Caucus’s approach to policy formation. Almost alone among his colleagues, Mr Cunliffe has identified the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences as both the reason and the opportunity for Labour to make a decisive break with the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy. He senses the hunger of Labour members, supporters and voters for a complete and radical review of the Party’s expectations of government: of what it hopes to achieve … and how.

Among those caucus colleagues unwilling to abandon Labour’s attachment to the conventional economic and social wisdom, this radicalism marks Mr Cunliffe out as “na├»ve and stupid”. To Labour’s rank-and-file, however, it marks him out as the man who should be leader.

If the polls continue to register the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the Shearer-led Labour Opposition, Mr Cunliffe’s enemies will do everything within their power to ensure that he is not elected as Mr Shearer’s replacement. They are terrified that the advent of Labour’s new Electoral College will encourage the party’s rank-and-file to not only assert their preference for a new leader, but also, availing themselves of the new procedures for selecting candidates, for a wholesale purge of the non-performers and time-servers who long ago ceased to advance Labour’s cause. It is to the cautious Grant Robertson that Mr Shearer’s erstwhile backers will turn, and the price of their support will be that the Opposition’s front-benchers (with the obvious exception of Mr Cunliffe and his allies) stay exactly where they are.

Mr Robertson would be most unwise to have any part in such a Faustian bargain. Labour must change or it will die. Not quickly and dramatically, but slowly and ignominiously, as the best among its ranks depart, and the worst cling on – for reasons of personal vanity, or from fear of a community they have given no reason to welcome them back – until, at last, the navigation lights of the good ship Labour are swallowed up in “the running straits of history”.

If Labour is to be saved, then its younger MPs must not resist but make common cause with Mr Cunliffe. This is the only alliance that holds out the slightest hope for a renewal of the party’s purpose and the rebirth of its fighting spirit. Mr Robertson and his friends have time on their side: they, unlike the political movement to which they have devoted their lives, can afford to wait.

The Labour Caucus has nothing to lose but Trevor Mallard.

It has an election to win.

Cunliffe and Robertson unite!

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Unknown said...

I agree with you all the way Chris except for the last sentence. I do not think there is much chance of this happening ...

Victor said...

I can think of something better than Cunliffe plus Robertson.

It's Cunliffe minus Robertson.....and minus all the other patch-protective myrmidons and in-fighters.

But, then, politics remains the art of the possible.

Anonymous said...

Shearer should watch Revolution at NZ on Screen for Lange speaking of Douglas and his support; specifically, where Lange says ‘He always had the support of the people who didn’t have an original idea in their lives; many of them, if their lives flashed past them, they wouldn’t be in them. They were people who were total political non-entities. (cue images of Clark, Goff, et al.) ’ and also, where Douglas is supported back into cabinet, ‘I interpreted that as the caucus’s ultimate death wish. That proved to me that the caucus had a majority of people in it who were politically incompetent, personally inept, and many of them were marginally stupid. Unfortunately several of the one’s of the last category—and indeed all three—remain in parliament today. (cue further images of Clark, Goff, et al.).’

Also, one should watch the part of The Hollow Men dealing with Brash’s Orewa speech and then consider Shearer’s speech to Grey Power this month, where he states: ‘I am going to talk to you about something Nash stood for that I think is just as applicable today: He wanted to make sure everyone got a fair go, whether they were a retired New Zealander, or a young family just starting out. The basic social contract back then was that everyone would pull their weight, do the right thing, and they expected the government to keep its side of the bargain. Last year before the election, I was chatting to a guy in my electorate who had just got home from work. In the middle of the conversation, he stopped and pointed across the road to his neighbour. He said: “see that guy over there, he’s on a sickness benefit, yet he’s up there painting the roof of his house. That’s not bloody fair. Do you guys support him?” From what he told me, he was right, it wasn’t bloody fair, and I said so. I have little tolerance for people who don’t pull their weight. We don’t like others ripping the system off – and those who get most incensed about it are people like this bloke who works hard, does what he believes is the right thing and earns close to the minimum wage.’

If he genuinely believes that it is beneficiaries “ripping off the system” that has anything remotely to do with the protracted depression, unequivocally engendered by the elite finance sector exploiting an already tenuous system of global capitalist exploitation and war, he’s woefully stupid. And if he’s just running a PR-crafted line to play up to ill-informed prejudice and bigotry he’s just another cynical toothless politician. For any of the Labour old guard to heap blame on citizens for compromising the “social contract” is hypocritical, at best.

What at all will Labour do to improve society, save low-cost legislative liberalisation in social policy which champions only personal autonomy (from a deeply entrenched neo-liberal paradigm)? Personally, I think Labour being obliterated totally is a better prospect for ultimate social change than limping alongside these cynical careerist misfits. Drop the pretence and the romantic hopefulness. When Cunliffe goes he’ll take anyone with any intelligence or genuine commitment to social change with him.

Jigsaw said...

The problem for Labour and indeed the country, is that David Cunliffe is a most unlikeable character and while he might have good ideas I think that he lacks the necessary charisma to be an effective leader. You talk about Norm Kirk and I recall seeing him speak at a PTA meeting in Akaroa in 1962 and he really had it-the ability to compel people to listen in much the same way that David Lange had. The main difference was that Kirk lacked the education to really take that ability to the next stage. Nothing I have seen or heard of David Cunliffe convinces me that he has this sort of ability but then sure as hell Grant Roberston doesn't have it either!

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile Shearer gets in on the great beneficiary bashing game


guerilla surgeon said...

Lange might have been a great speaker, but he was as politically inept as anyone. God, what are we descending to where charisma rather than policy should decide elections. I used to enjoy listening to Lange on the radio in Parliament, but he was a bloody hopeless Prime Minister.

I would vote for an orangutan if it promised to renationalise what National are in the process of selling off, and reorganise the tax system so the rich pay their share – and that would include cutting all those loopholes like family trusts. I essentially don't care how fluently they speak, but what they do. But you'll never get that, because they don't make proper promises any more, just vague assertions which they can dismiss once they're in office. That we should have sunk so low.

Olwyn said...

@ Jigsaw; David Cunliffe seems to be pretty well liked in his electorate, both by those who work for Labour there and those who vote that way. Meanwhile the caucus & co risk rendering themselves detestable in order to convince others that Cunliffe is not likeable.

Cactus Kate said...

I love Shearer
Takes a certain amount of courage to fess up that bludgers painting the roof in hot weather should be outed over an obvious income top up welfare for families recipient.

Anonymous said...

Wow Big Norm nailed that one big time, what could have been if he had lived another 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Labours problems run deeper than simply the 'choice' of leader. Phil Goff should never have been allowed to stand down so soon after the election, and as for whoever advised David Shearer not to 'engage' with's after he was elected leader, well, the National Party is always looking for new members!

No, what we are seeing under Mr Shearer leadership is a swing back to the right of the party - did it ever truely leave? - one that fits in with the mantle of National.

If David Shearer is to continue leading the Labour Party, ditch those who are telling him he is 'on the right track' and develop some politicial nous.

peterpeasant said...

This looks like the final kamikaze dive of the Labour Party caucus.

It is going to take decades for anything resembling a socially responsible democratic political party to reappear in this country.

When it does it would be well advised to avoid "labour" in its title. Since 1984 Labour has been disappearing into a black hole, led by a caucus dominated dictatorship.

Anonymous said...

If Labour aren't careful, they have a good chance of ending up like the Canadian Liberals. You can only triangulate for so long until people get fed up of it.

I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that the Greens might well be the next opposition. The Canadian NDP did just that to the Liberals in similar circumstances (infighting, an ineffectual leader, etc,). A shame Jack Layton didn't live long enough to enjoy what he'd worked so hard for. Canada now has a genuine left wing opposition party, and the federal Liberals are completely spent.

NZ Labour are a joke party. They don't really stand for anyone but themselves, and are living on goodwill from constituencies that they don't really do much for.

Cunliffe is an ambitious man, but at least has some idea of what he stands for and what he wants to do. The others are merely ambitious. What a train wreck.

Tim G. said...

Dear Chris,

I feel that I owe you a small apology.

Whilst I still feel that your recent posts have been intended to cast the current Labour caucus as a bunch of scheming crypto-Rogergnomes (I'm still not convinced), this incident makes it clear that you are on the money with your remarks about the ugly machinations at work.

Once Shearer has hung the two treacherous MPs responsible for this leak out to dry, presumably the ABC club will be slightly smaller.

With that said, what makes you think that Grant Robertson is a potential ally to Cunliffe?

Also, do you have any inkling why Cunliffe is roundly despised outside of the caucus by the likes of (say) Hone Harawira who publicly refers to him "Cun*liffe*?)

Best regards,

Tim G.

Sanctuary said...

Norman Kirk embarked on some huge expansions of the welfare state just as the economic chickens of the complacency of the Holyoake years were coming home to roost. Had Kirk lived, I think he would have reacted in much the same way as Muldoon in trying to preserve the post WWII settlement in New Zealand and he would have been equally as unsuccessful. What Kirk may have done, though, is prevent the subversion of the Labour party by right wing Bolsheviks.

I made a comment over at the Dimpost that I suspect the Mallards and the Goffs and the Kings and the Robertsons now don't stand for anything, except their own sense of institutional entitlement. That sense of untouchable entitlement has been born from the cynical way that our parliament has since 1984 inflicted neo-liberalism on the population but carefully shielded themselves from the consequences. Mallard and co are probably terrified at the idea of having to get a job in the labour market they helped create. The systems they designed very never meant to aply to them. Not for Trevor the wearying routine of declining wages counter-acted by ever longer hours, the insecurity of a mangerial class wedded to constant restructures, the fussy pickiness of employers who expect the CV and candidate to be perfect for second rate jobs.

But you know what? I quite like the idea of Trevor Mallard not being able to get a job.

Jigsaw said...

I absolutely agree about David Lange as Guerilla Surgeon says -he was hopeless in the end but you still need some charisma, public appeal, call it what you want to be able to attract people and get them to listen to what you have to say. No matter how much you like a government and its policies you should always wish for a vocal and effective opposition and we are sadly lacking that at the moment.

jenk said...

Jigsaw says Cunliffe is " unlikeable"...,"... he lacks the necessary charisma to be an effective leader.... Norm Kirk really had it-the ability to compel people to listen"
I disagree. I listened to Cunliffe convince an audience in the north, mostly Maori, low income, living in state houses. He gave a talk on NZ economy and possible solutions, and was overwhelmingly applauded for his clear, direct presentation leavened with some humour. Local people who did not usually go to political meetings were talking about his presentation days later.
Cunliffe does have that charisma necessary for a leader, and he also has facts and knowledge to back himself up with.
Shearer I see is now into beneficiary bashing - shades of Muldoon coming through there!

Victor said...


Do you actually know that Cunliffe is unlikeable or have you been told this by the media?

Alternatively, are you one of the people telling the media that Cunliffe is unlikeable.

All I know of the man is what I've seen on TV. He comes across as focused, cogent, lucid, straight-forward and capable of articulating relatively sophisticated arguments in reasonably comprehensible terms. He also seems to have a dry, low key sense of humour. What's not to like?

I'm an immigrant whose lived in New Zealand for nearly three decades. Time and time again, I've seen capable, focused people dished by confederacies of their less capable colleagues. And, all too often, it comes with some vague and unattributable smear about the targeted person being overly ambitious, self-seeking or just plain not "nice". And yet the people targeted are typically a lot nicer than those doing the targeting.

I'd take some convincing that this is not yet another example of the same dismal tendency. Thank goodness there are still enough good things about New Zealand to balance this destructive and often viciously recurrent process.

I fear that peterpeasant is right. If Labour does not shrug off the influence of its patch protective power brokers there will be no decent Social Democratic party here for many years to come, despite our crying need for a revival of Social Democracy.

Anonymous said...

Be honest guys ! While there are many thoughtful analyses here...Cactus Kate is correct. The voting public are fed up with bludgers....and therein lies a major problem for labour who continually stick up for "deadshts"that in the real world, need a kick in the arse !

Anonymous said...

Social democrat parties will always end up like Labour.

Their lack of understanding of either the dynamics of capitalism, or power relationships, means they are never really able to bring themselves to stand for much other than a kinder version of whatever the current forms of oppression happen to be at the time.

Courage,wisdom,vision, intellectual vigour and willingness to engage in genuine conflict have always been forbidden territory for them.

Their lack of direction ineveitably leads to disillusionment. Those among their ranks who can, just end up looking after themselve like the present crop of MPs are.

The worst thing about them is their peddling of the snake oil of easy change prevents the growth of a socialist alternative grounded in hard struggle.

guerilla surgeon said...

"The voting public are fed up with bludgers..."

Yes thanks to people like Kate 3/4 of the population believe there are zillions of people ripping off the benefit system. In actual fact there are 3. The right's main strength is telling lies often enough so that they're believed. Like Obama was born in Kenya, or there's huge voter fraud, or Obama's a muslim. It gets to the stage where all you have to do is deny the wildest of them with a wink.

Hugh Allan said...

Cunliffe is an effective problem solver, the type needed in the Labour Party. He has the experience and qualifications. Why he is the object of anonymous unsubstantiated slurs is conjecture. Certainly fear of the man and his ideas is a big part of the animousity. That does not bode well for the next election. Or for the start-up economy, stable race relations, innovative state education or a quality health system in Aotearoa-New Zealand. David Cunliffe is not the Labour Party but he is the leader for now in the Labour Party!

Anonymous said...

Off topic here (but only slightly if Robertson is the default alternative) is NZ ready for a gay PM? Some of the comments coming forth on the current marriage debate make me pause and doubt that it is.

There seems to be a large block of quite conservative people (of all ages, which is a concern) who sound quite comfortable making judgements on people based on what they are; rather than what they say.

Can these folk look past their prejudice and cast a vote for a gay party leader (when his opponent is "that approachable family man" who we would apparently trust to baby sit our kids etc etc?)

guerilla surgeon said...

Ha! The day I'd let a politician babysit my kids... probably charge the earth anyway.

Kat said...

Guess it will...oops...maybe, sorted out in November then, eh Chris?

Anonymous said...

At Christmas I saw Sheaer and Cunliffe speak at Auckland University when they were campaigning to be leader. I was moved hearing Cunliffe, I felt giddy and a little tear came to my eye as he spoke. And then a familiar memory came to my mind. It was when Lange spoke about education back in the 80s... And I knew that was a speech of a leader. After, Shearer spoke, I was cringing, but he is a nice guy. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt... But let's be honest. Cunliffe is far more the politician, the professional and the intellect. I know who I want leading the party into the 2014 election, and it is not Shearer!

aberfoyle said...

I think it would be a fair assumption, that had Cunliffe gained the leaders role,he would have had a clean out of some of the older guard.

It is without doubt that Cunliffe, has it over Shearer, in spades, when it comes to Parliamentary debate and public speaking.His grasp of economic issues is up there with Key,English,Joyce.

On the down side, he most defianatly comes across as arrogant, and would be a hard task master,maybe to the point of dictatorial.

As for Shearer,what we are seeing is a Politician who!s public persona displays bumbling indecision.That not to say he is a incompetent leader,just that he is not comfortable in the public arena, as a Party leader,And Key and co,are having a ball with it.Reminds me of Mulddon and Rowling.

jh said...

Labours problems stem from the melting of New Zealand Workers with beneficiaries and foreign workers. Once beneficiaries were workers on a benefit but in the community experience they are no longer considered to be so pure.

Greg Clydsdale called Labours immigration policies to task. The Standard calls Clysdale New Zealands most racist economist. Cunliffe poo-hooed Clydesdale but the Savings Working Group years later confirms Clydesdales findings (something the media ignores).

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm largely apolitical but my work has brought me close to David Cunliffe for a number of years, and I have found him likeable, approachable, smart and honest. He would be an excellent neighbour as well as a highly competent prime minister.

As to criticism that he is too ambitious - isn't "unambitious politician' an oxymoron?

He is the man Labour needs for the future.

Anonymous said...

As the National government slowly begins to unravel, we need Labour to be ready, with a leader we can relate to. David Shearer's lack of single-mindedness and fluency does not damage his electability for me personally. I prefer to look deeper than that. I'd be happy with either Cunliffe or Shearer, but Robertson makes me nervous, and if he is running Shearer's Labour I think they are destined for another term in opposition.

Bob said...

I think you've been too rough on Shearer as they seem to be finally getting their shit together.

You've been a bit quiet on this lately Chris - what's your take on where the red buggers are at?