The Party Was Behind Him - Shame About The Caucus: David Cunliffe’s unforgiveable sin – at least in the eyes of his colleagues – was being seized of the need for Labour to reposition itself ideologically. He understood that, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, social-democracy must either have a rebirth of radicalism or fade into irrelevance. It was not a message that his colleagues wanted to hear. When Cunliffe, despairing of rousing Labour’s parliamentary wing, reached out to the party membership, he sealed his fate.
SO, DAVID CUNLIFFE’S LEAVING POLITICS. I’d be lying if I told you I’m surprised. The toxic, soul-rotting environment of the Labour caucus is no place for a rational human-being. In fact, what really surprised me about Cunliffe was how long he managed to endure the company of those “colleagues” whose petty jealousies and unreasoning hatreds inflicted so much damage – both to him and the Labour Party he tried to lead.
Some on the left of New Zealand politics have compared Cunliffe to Jeremy Corbyn. Inasmuch as both men have been on the receiving end of an extraordinary amount of poisonous media invective and rank caucus disloyalty the comparison is a sound one. But Cunliffe cannot lay claim to Corbyn’s outsider status. As a highly competent and effective cabinet minister in the Clark-led Labour Government, he moved in the inner, not the outer, circles of his party.
Corbyn languished on the back benches of the House of Commons for thirty years, a harmless throwback to the era of Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Cunliffe’s ambition was much easier to spot. That was his undoing. As one commenter on the Labour-leaning blog, The Standard, put it: “David Cunliffe was always the smartest guy in the room. Unfortunately he knew it, and let others know he knew it.”
Cunliffe’s other, even more unforgiveable, defect – at least in the eyes of his colleagues – was being seized of the need for Labour to reposition itself ideologically. He understood that, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, social-democracy must either have a rebirth of radicalism or fade into irrelevance. It was not a message that his colleagues – beset as so many of them were with moral and intellectual lethargy – wanted to hear. When Cunliffe, despairing of rousing Labour’s parliamentary wing, reached out to the party membership, he sealed his fate.
In this aspect, also, the parallels with Corbyn are striking. Neoliberalism, it would seem, has no stronger defenders than the legatees of Tony Blair and Roger Douglas. Having defanged their respective labour parties so ruthlessly in the 1980s and 90s, the prospect of social-democracy growing a new set of teeth is one which these children of the neoliberal revolution will do almost anything to prevent.
It was Corbyn’s good fortune to take control of the British Labour Party a full five years out from the UK’s next general election. It’s a schedule that affords him just enough time to win the ideological and organisational battles within the party before turning to defeat Labour’s real enemy – the Tories.
Time was a luxury David Cunliffe did not have. He won the leadership just 12 months out from the 2014 election. Defeating his internal enemies and the National Party was simply too big an ask.
This was the brute fact that undid Cunliffe’s leadership. Torn between honouring his promises to the membership, and preventing his caucus enemies from moving into open revolt, Cunliffe found it almost impossible to make the crucial strategic and tactical decisions that effective political leadership demands.
One of the reasons Cunliffe was so reluctant to abandon the leadership in the days following the 2014 election was because he knew how vital it was to finally have the internal fight that the exigencies of waging an election campaign had postponed. By 27 September 2014, however, Cunliffe was in no shape to launch a struggle for the heart and soul of the Labour Party. Emotionally wrung-out, his marriage falling apart, assailed with extraordinary viciousness by his caucus enemies and deserted by even his closest allies, he resigned the leadership and threw what support remained to him within the party behind the candidacy of Andrew Little.
Part of the explanation for Cunliffe waiting so long to announce his retirement is, perhaps, that he couldn’t quite bring himself to accept that Little was never going to radicalise, renew or reposition the Labour Party. In spite of the worldwide voter hunger for a principled alternative to the exhausted philosophy of free markets and free trade, the New Zealand Labour caucus’s preference for fudging and fiddling remains undiminished.
So David Cunliffe is leaving. Moving back into the commercial world where, in marked contrast to the political world, incompetence is punished and excellence rewarded.
Walk away with your head held high, David. You gave it your best shot. The struggle continues.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 November 2016.