David Cunliffe cannot beat National in 2017. That’s as close to a political certainty as there is. Labour did as poorly as they did this election in part because of Cunliffe. I know too many people who wouldn’t touch Labour with a barge pole while Cunliffe was leader.
Brian Edwards sums up Cunliffe’s problem well:
Perhaps the most widespread criticism you hear of David Cunliffe is that he doesn’t seem sincere, that the things he says seem to lack spontaneity, to sound rehearsed, scripted, to be part of a performance. It’s not just that the Labour Leader’s acting is over the top; it’s that he should be acting at all.
I think there’s some truth to this, to the ‘but’ that lies at the back of so many people’s minds, the ill-defined but nagging doubt as to whether this is a man you can trust or someone you can afford to like. I hear this all the time. On the street. At parties. In discussion with friends. Ask them for the evidence to support their conclusion and you rarely get a clear answer. It’s just an impression, a perception, a feeling. But it may account in part for Labour’s dismal showing in the election. And it may be enough to prevent David Cunliffe ever becoming Prime Minister.
But that’s only the start of it. From even before David Cunliffe was elected leader, everyone knew that most of his colleagues despised him. The term ABC – Anyone But Cunliffe – became a common expression on the evening news. Labour’s MPs may have put their vendettas on hold during the election campaign proper, but the previous year of leaks, backstabbing and continual undermining of Cunliffe had left the public with no illusions that Labour was desperately divided house.
If Cunliffe somehow manages to retain the leadership, the situation will be even worse. Voters will continue to stay away from Labour in droves.
Unfortunately, Grant Robertson doesn’t appear to offer much in terms of mending a broken party. Many in the caucus seem reluctant to get in behind him – they really dislike Cunliffe, but they’re still not sure whether Robertson has what it takes to defeat Key. And a majority of the members seem even less enthused by him, perhaps put off by his career politician, “beltway” background.
Besides, like a drunken fratboy, the Labour leadership contest has gone ugly early. Cunliffe is already damaged goods; by the time the primary campaign is over, Robertson might well be too.
So who else is there? David Shearer? He’s already failed once as leader. His on-camera appearances may have improved, but they’ve been in the context of defined policy areas, rather than the broad big-picture Q&A sessions he’d have to cope with as leader. If he were to revert back to the role of leader, he would once again fail.
Andrew Little? A possibility. If he threw his hat into the ring, he’d certainly command a great deal of support from the unions, and he doesn’t seem disliked by either the caucus or membership. As a contender for Prime Minister though, he’d likely struggle to be seen as anything other than a mouthpiece for the unions.
Stuart Nash or Kelvin Davis? Far too inexperienced, with no real support base yet to speak of. If either of them makes a tilt for the leadership, it will be for the purpose of increasing their profile and gaining a senior role from whoever wins.
Jacinda Ardern? Too young, with no solid form behind her. See my previous post: “The Mystifying Rise of Jacinda Ardern“.
Which leaves David Parker. As Cunliffe and Robertson fight each other to a standstill, Parker would be an ideal candidate to throw his name in at the last minute and cut through the middle. He’s intelligent and articulate, with a solid policy grasp. He was impressive in the finance debates with Bill English during the election. He’s the sort of stable, respectable figure who might just be able to convince the voting public that Labour can again be trusted.
Crazy? Perhaps. But no less crazy than any of the other alternatives…