WAS IT PURE COINCIDENCE? Just 48 hours before the opening of Labour’s annual conference in Palmerston North, David Cunliffe contributes a blinder of a speech to Parliament’s General Debate. Watching and listening to the speech it’s hard to avoid the impression that the man lumbered with all the responsibility for Labour’s catastrophic 2014 election defeat was using his speaking slot to send a message to the gathering rank-and-file.
“If you’ve been wondering why you voted for me back in 2013,” Cunliffe seemed to be saying, “it’s because, when I want to, I can unleash a speech like this.” He had no need to add: “Can anyone on Labour’s front bench say the same?” Because Labour’s members were already asking themselves that question.
It’s increasingly difficult to form a clear impression of Cunliffe the politician. Blackening Cunliffe’s name, and trashing his performance as party leader, have played a crucial role in enhancing the shaky legitimacy of the man who replaced him. It has also allowed the party to avoid examining too closely the contribution of other Labour MPs to the 2014 debacle. The stories of Cunliffe’s indecision; his inability to formulate a strategy and stick to it; his obsessive and exhausting micromanagement; these are all that’s needed, now, to explain away Labour’s worst electoral performance since 1922.
And Andrew Little (the man whose winning margin was less than 1 percent) has been able to emerge from this carefully constructed narrative as Labour’s unlikely saviour. After a long run of incredibly bad luck, Little is portrayed as Labour’s lucky break. A strong and stable contrast to the unaccountably hopeless Cunliffe.
Because that is the contradiction that so many of Cunliffe’s supporters still cannot reconcile: the before-Cunliffe and the after-Cunliffe. The coolly ruthless assassin of David Shearer’s hopes; the man who repeatedly reassured his supporters that he would be leader of the NZLP, and then proved as good as his word. Could he also be the hapless, accident-prone, foot-in-mouth Cunliffe who, as Leader of the Opposition, took Labour from 37 percent in the polls to 25 percent at the ballot-box?
Listen to Cunliffe’s speech carefully, and an answer, of sorts, emerges. National’s strategy, which turns out to be exactly the same strategy as that of the Crosby-Textor-advised Conservative parties in the UK and Canada, is to use the Right’s allies in the news media (and the blogs) to destroy the reputation of new Opposition leaders before the public has time to form a firm opinion of their own. Foot-tripped from the very beginning, and unable to establish any kind of secure footing, Cunliffe struggled constantly to tear off the labels being fastened to him from every quarter (including, tragically, by members of his own caucus).
Cunliffe does not dispute the facts of his less-than-stellar performance as Labour Leader. There are things he knows he should not have done – or, at least, done differently. All he was trying to say in his Wednesday-afternoon speech was, in essence, two things. First: “You weren’t wrong to make me your leader, because, when I’m good – I’m bloody good!” And second: “I know I stuffed a lot of things up, but, never forget, I had plenty of help!”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 7 November 2015.