Momentary Triumph: David Cunliffe beams as the Labour Party democratises itself over the concerted resistance of his parliamentary colleagues. Within hours he was being set up as the scapegoat for the Conference delegates' insubordination. (Photo by John Chapman)
“OUR PROBLEMS aren’t external – they’re internal.” Chris Hipkins has one of those eternally youthful countenances which argue strongly against such ominous utterances. It’s as if such old words couldn’t possibly slither between such young teeth. And yet there he was before me, speaking darkly about the enemy within.
Hardly surprising, perhaps, given the fall-out from Labour’s tumultuous annual conference?
Except that Mr Hipkins’ political paranoia was being carried into the hall well before the acrimonious constitutional debate which caught so many Labour MPs and political journalists by surprise last Saturday morning. Because it was Friday afternoon, not Saturday morning, that the Chief Opposition Whip vouchsafed to me his grim opinion on the inherent character of Labour’s “problems”.
No matter. From the moment the failure of David Shearer’s followers’ all-out effort to defeat a proposal requiring Labour’s leader, in the February following a general election, to secure the backing of more than 60 percent of his caucus, or face an election involving Labour MPs, party members and affiliated trade unions, became clear, Mr Hipkins and the rest of Mr Shearer’s faction worked tirelessly to paste David Cunliffe’s face all over Labour’s “internal” difficulties.
The narrow victory (264/237) of the new party rule was presented as proof that not only were “dark forces” (as one journalist colourfully described them) conspiring behind the scenes, but that a Cunliffe-inspired leadership coup was imminent.
The eagerness with which journalists accepted this version of events is, from a week’s perspective, rather puzzling. Had a leadership coup truly been unfolding, how likely is it that its purported leader, well short of the numbers, would kick it off by publicly over-exciting TV3’s irrepressible Patrick Gower with repeated and repeated and repeated refusals to declare his support for Mr Shearer’s leadership?
Ambition, as Mark Antony said of Julius Caesar, should be made of sterner (or at least more tactically adroit) stuff. A genuine plotter would have grinned broadly, and with a twinkle in his eye, pledged undying loyalty to his leader. Continuing the Shakespearian theme: he would have “smiled and smiled, yet been a villain”.
The one really intriguing question still awaiting a satisfactory answer is, therefore: “Why did he do it?” Why did Mr Cunliffe not tell Mr Gower that a leadership challenge was out of the question? He must have known that his refusal to do so would dominate the news media’s coverage of the conference; overshadow the Labour Party’s radical democratisation process; and draw public attention away from both his leader’s keynote address and the party’s new housing policy.
What was he thinking?
I can, of course, only speculate. But my best guess is that Mr Cunliffe’s behaviour was driven by a combination of high political excitement; a powerful sense of vindication; and simple, old-fashioned, personal pride.
In part, the constitutional victories achieved at last weekend’s conference were the product of the rank-and-file’s indignation at seeing Caucus over-ride their clear leadership preference last December. One could say, therefore, that the votes against Mr Shearer’s allies on the conference floor were votes for Mr Cunliffe. Bathed in the golden light of victory; savouring the sweet taste of vindication after nearly twelve months of unceasing vilification at the hands of Mr Hipkins and his ilk, Mr Cunliffe simply wasn’t prepared to even ritually tug his forelock in the direction of Mr Shearer. (And certainly not via the leering medium of Paddy Gower!)
It was pride, and a surfeit of amour propre, that led Mr Cunliffe to turn a considerable political triumph into what has turned out to be a colossal personal defeat.
And that, surely, is the point. No man possessed of a serious intention to unseat his leader could possibly have made such a huge and career-damaging blunder.
Because, in politics, blunders are almost never forgiven.
From his now much-reduced position in Labour’s hierarchy, Mr Cunliffe can, however, comfort himself with the thought that although he has not conquered – neither has he stooped.
And there’s always February.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 November 2012.