A latter-day John A Lee departs
By Richard Harman (author)
David Cunliffe’s resignation yesterday represents a bowing to the inevitable by the MP and marks another step on the unification of the Caucus by Leader Andrew Little.
Rarely has an MP at times seemed as unpopular with his colleagues although there were recent signs that he was becoming more accepted.
At the Fabians Forum on Sunday, David Parker, who has in the past made no secret of his disillusionment with Cunliffe was praising the work he had done on innovation.
And that illustrated the dichotomy that Cunliffe posed as a politician.
He was a highly successful Minister and thinker but a failure as Leader.
Perhaps, more importantly, he divided Labour’s caucus.
Much has been made of the “ABC” club, the sop-called “Anybody but Cunliffe” for Leader faction.
They were typically named as the right wing members of caucus who were provoked by the left wing following from outside the party.
But there was more to the ABC club than that.
Things came to something of head in mid-2012 when Labour's caucus under David Shearer's leadership sharply criticised a speech Cunliffe had made to a Labour Party women's group in his electorate.
In the speech, he said: "When the Right-wing party says that it's going to cut your leg off," Mr Cunliffe told his Labour Party audience, "voters want the Left-wing party to say that it's not going to cut your leg off. Voters don't want to be told that the Left-wing party is also going to cut your leg off, but cut it off a bit lower down and give you some anaesthetic.
"I think that's a major reason that nearly one million voters deserted us at the last election. It wasn't because we failed to communicate our policies. Quite the opposite. Those voters saw that our policies - with the exception of asset sales - were mostly the same as Nationals. So we can't really be surprised at the result."
It wasn't what he said that rankled back in Wellington; it was that he said it. It was ultimately a critique of the direction the Shearer leadership was taking the party.
And as Shearer floundered in his Leadership role, Cunliffe was adroitly positioned, and though his supporters like to blame the media, it was clear at the party's 2012 conference that Cunliffe and his supporters were ready to challenge Shearer.
When the leadership election ultimate occurred in September 2013, Cunliffe easily won 60% of the party vote but was second behind Grant Robertson with only 32% of the caucus vote.
And that's how Labour went into the 2014 election; with a divided caucus and, as it was to turn out, a Leader hopelessly indecisive and disorganised.
The electorate's verdict was brutal.
The New Zealand Electoral Survey conducted by Victoria and Auckland Universities, found that only 32% of the electorate trusted him against 57% who trusted Key while only 22% thought him competent against 81% who thought Key competent.
The electorate's verdict pretty much echoed the caucus view of him.
As time has put distance from the last election, more and more horror stories have emerged from Labour MPs and former staff about what happened during the last election campaign.
Meanwhile, his faithful left wing supporters were mourning their loss yesterday on “the Standard” blog.
A comment from “Venezia” was typical: “The degree to which Dirty Politics targeted Cunliffe is a measure of the threat he was as Labour leader to the fortunes of the National government. The undermining of his own caucus is what I will remember from that election period. I have voted Labour solidly my entire adult life. It is no longer a difficult decision to choose which party to give both my votes to in 2017 – The Greens.”
But as he heads up to his party's annual conference this Friday, Andrew Little might be thinking he’s had a good week.
The selection of Virginia Andersen for Hutt South gives the party the prospect of a bright new face in Parliament, and the departure of Cunliffe should put an end to much (but not all) of the Caucus infighting.
Labour appears to have a well-organised strategy for the Mt Roskill by-election with Little yesterday challenging the Prime Minister on increases in burglary and assault rates – an issue among the many immigrant small business owners in Mt Roskill.
There will still be questions about right wing MPs like David Shearer and Stuart Nash and how committed they are to the Little-led caucus, but overall, the caucus looks (and sounds) very different to when Cunliffe was its Leader.
Unfortunately, that will be his legacy. A sort of latter day John A Lee.