Ordinarily, when the coup of a party leader is underway, one of two things happens. Either the incumbent simply walks, having seen the writing on the wall, or attempts to stare down their opposition in a closed room. Someone walks out of the room as leader, be they the continuing leader or a fresh face, and the party and public is informed of the result.
The Labour Party, in its collective wisdom, now has a very public election process, which is all very well for the candidates with no leadership history to defend. It’s a very different kettle of fish for David Cunliffe, who will now have to defend leading Labour to its worst result in recent history.
If one wins a resounding victory and credits the team (a la John Key), one is deemed a good winner. If one suffers a resounding loss and runs with the ‘blame everyone but oneself’ approach, the plaudits are somewhat fewer. Therein lies the catch for Cunliffe. If he accepts responsibility, as he’s hitherto failed to do, he’s toast. If he tries to apportion blame elsewhere, he risks a resounding backlash.
The backlash has begun. Cunliffe has remarked that some candidates may have been concentrating on the electorate vote, rather than the party vote. He’s had an excruciatingly scathing open letter from Labour’s Ilam candidate, James Macbeth Dann as a result, published at Public Address. Here are some highlights:
I gave my campaign everything, and I am sure that you did the same. We ran a two ticks campaign in Ilam. All our material had “Party Vote Labour” proudly on it. We delivered tens of thousands of pieces of paper with your face on it. But the reality, the hard truth, is that people in the electorate just didn’t connect with you. I lost count of the number of times I door knocked someone who told me they had voted Labour all their life, but wouldn’t vote for us as long as you were leader. People who would have a Labour sign – but not one with your face on it. While those examples are strictly anecdotal, the result on election night isn’t. It’s unavoidable. It’s practically the worst result in the Party’s history.
The Labour Party isn’t a vehicle for you to indulge your fantasy of being Prime Minister. While you might think that it’s your destiny to be the visionary leader of this country, the country has a very different vision – and it doesn’t involve you.
It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the Labour party, one that is closer in both age and understanding with the people it needs to represent. It’s not just time for Grant, but also for people like me. I think I did a good job in a very difficult electorate, and would like to build on it at the next election.
However, I won’t be part of a party that you lead. Not because I don’t like you, but because I simply don’t want to lose again. That’s the reality David. The people of New Zealand don’t want you to be their leader. The comparisons that you and your supporters have thrown up don’t hold water – you aren’t Norm Kirk and you aren’t Helen Clark. You’re David Cunliffe and you led the Labour Party to it’s most devastating result in modern history.
So I’ll promise you this. If you win, I’ll step aside from the party, to let you and your supporters mould it into the party you want. But in return I ask this: if you lose this primary, you resign from parliament. In your time in opposition, we’ve had you on the front bench, where you let down your leader at the most critical point of the 2011 campaign. You ran for leader and lost, then destabilised the elected leader. Then when you got your chance as leader, you led Labour a party that was polling in the mid-30’s to one that sits firmly in the mid-20’s. There is no place for you in this party anymore.
And of course it’s open season in the media, with so much blood in the water. The NZ Herald had an online article entitled “Cunliffe’s candid comments on the leadership”. Except that it doesn’t go by that title anymore. Instead it’s been renamed “13 bizarre things Cunliffe has said in the past 24 hours“. There was no change in the content of the article, but the title is a spectacular shift in slant.
The new acting leader is David Parker, Cunliffe’s former deputy and finance spokesperson. As someone who performed exceptionally well throughout the campaign, he can’t be accused of attempting to undermine Cunliffe’s leadership. He’s been a loyal deputy, despite once being a contender for the leadership. And he too has now rammed the knife into Cunliffe, explicitly stating that he’s lost confidence in him.
When someone like Parker makes it that clear, in such a public fashion, there’s no way back for Cunliffe, even if he somehow wins the members and union vote with such a margin that he scrapes back in as leader. What do you do when your finance spokesperson has publicly stated he has no confidence in you?
Can Grant Robertson beat John Key in 2017? Who knows. Nonetheless, Cunliffe is a corpse, even if he retains the leadership. Perhaps the best thing for Labour would be for Cunliffe to abandon his tilt for the leadership, and for David Parker to reassess his refusal to stand. Parker v Robertson: a battle that could provide positive headlines? Or is it just me?