David Cunliffe has been given a shot – a better shot than he might have had – so which direction will he take and can he switch out of primary-mode quick enough?

When we heard yesterday that David Cunliffe had got the job he's so long coveted as Labour leader, my wife said to me "well now they can get on with it after wasting the past year on Shearer". As we enter the Cunliffe era, I'm not at all sure that time's been wasted, however. In fact, the latest David off the rank may well have good reason to be grateful to the ABCs [Anyone But Cunliffe].

Alternative histories are a bit like guessing games played in the dark – a bit pointless but lots of fun. But imagine if Cunliffe had beaten David Shearer to the top job when Phil Goff stood down, or even been able to orchestrate a coup last year. One thing's for sure, the opposition within the Opposition would have been fierce. The ABCs, had they lost, would have kept plotting.

As it stands, Shearer and the caucus members who took the punt and voted for him have had their shot. They got the job, the time and it didn't work. Now, just a little more than a year out from the next election, any Labour MP with any sense of duty to the party – and ambition to be in government – must suck it up and back Cunliffe to the hilt. Cunliffe, having won on the first ballot, has a strong mandate; and the timing only makes it stronger. Cunliffe can go into election year confident he won't be rolled and with a reasonable assumption of getting another shot in 2017 if he can get Labour close in 2014.

The ABCs, as I say, took their punt on Shearer. But now they've lost, Cunliffe is stronger than he would have been. Such is the ebb and flow of politics.

That makes me wonder whether we'll see some Labour MPs announcing in the next six months or so that they'll be standing down at the next election. And to be frank, that may be no bad thing, assuming the party has been paying attention and has the right sort of candidates waiting in the wings. (Of course given Cunliffe's power base now, he's in a good position to get his kind of people on board, further strengthening his hand).

So what kind of people will he want? In other words, what direction is he likely to take the party? If his new left-speak had been new in this primary, we could say it's a toos up. But to be fair, whilst he was regarded as being on the right of the party back in his early days, his vision of a reinvigorated left and hands-on government goes back a few years now, seemingly primarily inspired by the global financial crisis and the market failings that brought us the biggest economic catastrophe in several generations.

Perhaps Cunliffe greatest strength is that he understands the economics debate that's been going in since, has taken lessons from it and can articulate a different economic world-view than the one that's dominated New Zealand since Roger Douglas was Finance Minister.

We'll be able to colour in that outline and chart that direction in the next few weeks as he switches from primary-mode to all-voter mode. But he needs to do that quick smart.

What Cunliffe has to think about rapidly now is first impressions. I've blogged before that for all the surfing-guitar-playing-humanitarian-man image, Shearer fluffed his lines; he wasn't ready to create the right kind of impression. Cunliffe can't afford to do the same and needs to find the 25 words or less image he wants to create with the majority of voters who don't pay much attention.

Judging by the two interviews I've heard today is on the right track – he's looking at ease being authoritative and stressing the need for unity. Unity has to be the first job.

But he needs to stop talking as if he's addressing the party faithful. The call for unity now is not so he can lead the party, but so that the party can lead the country. He needs to talk from the voters' viewpoint and say he understands all New Zealanders won't put up with squabbles. He also needs to wind down the John Key attacks.

That work a treat with the base, but Key remains a defiantly popular Prime Minister with most New Zealanders. They don't want to hear talk of battleground and fights and how he'll expose and bring down a guy they think isn't too bad a bloke. Most New Zealanders want to hear about service, solutions and how Labour will prove itself worthy again (a message Goff didn't want to sell and Shearer couldn't). A little humility will go a long way; a little name-calling will go a long way too, just in the other direction.

His other big job is choosing other people's jobs. Grant Robertson is likely to stay as deputy – that says unity and is of little cost of Cunliffe. Can Cunliffe trust him? Well, Robertson wants his job, but he's also an honourable man long of talent and short of knives. Shane Jones had earnt himself an economic portfolio.

There's a log jam around Education, you'd think. Hipkins has done well in that area, Robertson would fit perfectly and it would give him a prominent position and plenty to keep him busy, but then Shearer would go well there also. Shearer could get Foreign Affairs, but of all the ABCs, Goff has been best at his day job and you'd be loathe to walk away from that experience. Cosgrove could well be moved back, but that's a potential waste and would also need some balancing to avoid accusations of revenge. Calre Curran presumably will drop.

Phil Twyford is an unsung hero in Housing and should be left there. Iain Lees-Galloway may be one of the best rewarded, given his early support of Cunliffe.

The other reason Lees-Galloway might jump forward is that Labour would do well to show a commitment to the regions. National is weak on regional development while Labour needs to target some provinical seats (given it only has the one in Palmerston North).

To the winner, the spoils. There's plenty there left to debate. And I'll end here because I'm going to be doing that soon... I'm on The Panel with Jim Mora this afternoon, and I'm sure this will be a big part of the chat.

Comments (20)

by Brad Gibbons on September 16, 2013
Brad Gibbons

"Labour needs to target some provinical seats (given it only has the one in Palmerston North)"

*Cough* West Coast Tasman

 

"But to be fair, whilst he was regarded as being on the right of the party back in his early days, his vision of a reinvigorated left and hands-on government goes back a few years now, seemingly primarily inspired by the global financial crisis and the market failings that brought us the biggest economic catastrophe in several generations."

According to an answer he gave to Young Labour, he has always been 'anti neo-liberalism' which is obviously contradicted by numerous statements and actions pre-opposition Labour

by Alan Johnstone on September 16, 2013
Alan Johnstone

To win, he needs to articulate the fact that he knows that Labour deserved to lose in 2008, that mistakes were made in the last term of office and to offer a fresh start.

Too many of the old guard, Mallard, King, Goff remain and appear defiant in their defence of the final years of the Clark administration. A line needs to be drawn. King and Goff in paticular are perfectly competent, but have a bad smell with the voters.

Cunliffe should ease these guys out of the picture with promises of future jobs under Labour. Goff would make an excellent ambassador to the court of St James or to Washington.

King can be found a comfortable chairmanship somewhere in the Health Service. where she can do some good. Or perhaps encouraged towards a mayoral position?

Mallard should be taken out and shot, pour encourager les autres.

Giving the greens a public kicking early on, might not be a bad idea. The Greens would have to suck it up, it's not like they have an alternative choices if they want to govern.

by Che Nua on September 16, 2013
Che Nua

I'm sure most NZers who vote know David Cunliffe's got talent but are waiting to be convinced he has the x-factor.  So till then a big part of Labour having a chance at nek elektion is for Cunliffe to configure things in the new line up to re-capitalise on Shane Jones potential pull with the Maori seats - if done right this will also nurture newbies in the post-Horomia environment & add half dozen numbers just like that; could be curtains for the mana party especially

by Matthew Percival on September 16, 2013
Matthew Percival

I'm intrigued you think Shane Jones is a good fit for the economic portfolio in a David Cunliffe led government.

I wonder sometimes if Shane Jones is in the wrong party such are his views on economic development while Cunliffe appears to be closer to the left of the party with his economic views.

I don't see that combination working.

 

by Daniel Laird on September 17, 2013
Daniel Laird

Alan Johnstone:
 
"it's not like they have an alternative choices if they want to govern." 

This could apply even more to Labour regarding the Greens. 
With the Greens polling pretty consistently at 10-15%, Labour are almost certainly going to need them to govern. 

I'm sure there are people out there who might vote labour, but are put off by the greens, but giving them a "public kicking" for the sake of it just plays into the narrative that a Labour-Greens coalition would be some unstable, conflict ridden mess - and my uninformed hunch is that any votes gained from the 'soft labour/anti-greens' bloc would be outweighed by people who just want stable governance.

And I can't see Labour giving the Greens a kicking will win them any current Green voters, if anything it might push some more soft Labour votes to the Greens.

By all means, Labour should engage the Greens on policy, criticise them in areas where they disagree and point out the flaws that they perceive, but stirring up needless conflict with the party that will almost certainly be your major coalition partner the next time you are in power is just foolish and counterproductive. 


 

by stuart munro on September 17, 2013
stuart munro

I don't think the ABCs did Cunliffe any favours - but they have unmasked themselves. The membership will sort the wheat from the chaff soon enough, if the ABCs are not drawing up the lists.

And it might be better that way. The ABC's animus was cliquely and self-interested, but Cunliffe represents the membership. Cunliffe should be annoyed at the ABCs - but it is the membership who should be furious.

by Graeme Edgeler on September 17, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

"Labour needs to target some provinical seats (given it only has the one in Palmerston North)"

*Cough* West Coast Tasman

As it happens, Labour lost of the Party Vote to National in both of these electorates :-)

by Tim Watkin on September 17, 2013
Tim Watkin

Thanks Brad, always forget O'Connor won it back. And yeah Graeme they did. The question is whether that was the high tide which is now ebbing or whether National is still strong.

Alan, it's an interesting choice he's got to make re the Greens. On one hand he'll be tempted to refute Key's constant assertion that the Greens are pulling Labour's strings by standing up to them and "kicking". But that may play into Key's hands by making that coalition look unstable and 'internally' divided. Given that Labour's still likely to come 2nd this election, it has to convince voters that the partnership will work and not be loopy left etc.

by Alan Johnstone on September 17, 2013
Alan Johnstone

Labours has two major problems, turnout which I've written about tons of times, and being seen as pro-growth.

The Greens are seen as anti-growth and anti development and put the spirtiualtity of native wildlife in front of jobs. Stage managing a disagreement over a development is going to be worthwhile. It'd allow Cunliffe to stand up and say that whilst the habitat of the native whatever is really important, providing jobs and economic chances to aspirational Kiwis is more important.

Labour only wins when it's a party of aspiration and social mobility.

by Tim Watkin on September 17, 2013
Tim Watkin

Interesting Alan - especially the phrase "stage manage". You mean not everything we see in politics is real?

It'd be interesting to see the polling as to the two parties' bases. I wonder whether the stereotypes still match the reality. I also wonder whether Labour would want to be careful about being too anti-wildlife given the beliefs of those under 30. It'll not want to just hand away the youth vote. And anyway, as Chris Trotter pointed out on The Panel with me yesterday, if the Alliance is any indicator, once Labour looks a potential winner and the coalition solid, the left vote tends to swing back to the major party anyway.

I still think Labour and the Greens have to be careful not to hoe into each other, as it will just make them look divided and unelectable. And they need each other. So I can see virtue either way.

by Tim Watkin on September 17, 2013
Tim Watkin

Matthew - he ain't gonna get an environmental portfolio! I guess I'm thinking about his ability to speak to the hip pocket concerns of all Kiwis and his 'centrist' reputation. For all the Cunliffe's expected to tack left, Jones is a useful part of his artillery when it comes to Labour looking like a broad church. Anyway, looks like Cunliffe's tied himself to Parker now, which is interesting.

Parker's smart and not afraid of making money, but he's not a strong communicator and not many people are excited as him about macro-economic detail. Still, he's not going to become leader. So I guess Cunliffe, like Clark with Cullen, can be confident his leadership aspirations are done and there's no knife at his back.

by Alan Johnstone on September 17, 2013
Alan Johnstone

The urban under 30 pro-wildlife voters having appaling turnout rates and are in the bag for the left wing alliance anyway.

The votes labour needs to gather are in the proviences; the placces where people see their kids leaving either for Auckland or Australia because there are no jobs. Being publically pro jobs in the regions should be a key objective.

I agree the Green vote is very soft.

by Lee Churchman on September 18, 2013
Lee Churchman

The Greens are seen as anti-growth and anti development and put the spirtiualtity of native wildlife in front of jobs.

These days not so much. The Greens have benefited from Shearer's complete lack of presence as leader. It has been said over and over again that Russell Norman had been the effective leader of the opposition. He's done a pretty reasonable job of that and has been highly visible and articulate. While I doubt that this will garner the Greens many more votes, it will go some way to assuaging potential Labour voters worried about a coalition with the Greens.

by Alan Johnstone on September 18, 2013
Alan Johnstone

Yes, so much these days. Can you point me towards a single mining or oil project that they support ?

 

by Tim Watkin on September 18, 2013
Tim Watkin

I agree with both of you, Alan and Lee. I think Labour has real potential in the regions if they get it right. While it seems the focus is on the "lost tribe" who didn't turnout last time, I think they can't realy on that and should be looking for some soft National support in the regions. However those under 30s lefties grow up into those who do vote and Labour doesn't want them to be default Green voters.

And Lee, Norman has made hay in the past two years and moderated the Greens enormously. But as you say, how much will stick? (Assuming Cunliffe performs and doesn't trip up).

To pick up on your other question, Alan, the Greens go out of their way to not be anti-mining per se – a good indicator of how Norman has pivoted them nicely.

From last year (reported here):

Greens co-leader Russel Norman told TV3's The Nation mining was part of the economy that could not be escaped.

''It's part of life, like you know look at things all around us,'' he said.

by Richard Aston on September 19, 2013
Richard Aston

I was thinking about the Green/Labour vote and wondered has anyone done any analysis on where the current Green vote comes from . Thinking about where people put their party vote after voting for their electoriate candidate.

Not many people vote Green electoriate candidates and Green Party so how do they choose to use their party vote.

Do they come from Labour electorates or National electorates ? Some key National electorates have suprising Green party votes .

I figure Labour party strategists must be crunching these numbers right now to guide what they project to the public - eg kick the greens or embraced the greens.What effect would an obvious Labour policy to the greens have on Nat voters swinging their party vote green .

 

 

by Andrew P Nichols on September 20, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

jobs and economic chances to aspirational Kiwis is more important. Labour only wins when it's a party of aspiration and social mobility.

Mr Johnstone, I guess that you will be  too late in understanding that without heeding the Greens message, there will be no jobs, economic chances, aspiration and social mobility. Fancy a Bladerunner world do we?

 

Labour needs the Greens. If it slags them off and persists with its bob each way attitude to environmental matters (which allows the Nats to get away with their current blitz of the envt), you will wake up one day to find that your party will be the junior to the Greens and wondering how it happened.

by Andrew P Nichols on September 20, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

jobs and economic chances to aspirational Kiwis is more important. Labour only wins when it's a party of aspiration and social mobility.

Mr Johnstone, I guess that you will be  too late in understanding that without heeding the Greens message, there will be no jobs, economic chances, aspiration and social mobility. Fancy a Bladerunner world do we?

 

Labour needs the Greens. If it slags them off and persists with its bob each way attitude to environmental matters (which allows the Nats to get away with their current blitz of the envt), you will wake up one day to find that your party will be the junior to the Greens and wondering how it happened.

by Richard Aston on September 23, 2013
Richard Aston

..."whilst the habitat of the native whatever is really important, providing jobs and economic chances to aspirational Kiwis is more important."

Alan , its not that polarised . Its that kind of single issue thinking that degraded the world's enviroment to the crisis point we now face.  We cannot improve our enviroment with the same thinking that degraded it in the first place. The enviromental challeges before demand much more than that.

I agree with Andrew , Labour needs to step up to this challenge and forge a creative alliance with the greens.

by Andrew Osborn on September 29, 2013
Andrew Osborn

I'd bet that if you did a survey of NZers you'd not find 1% who were anti the environment. Pretty much all want to preserve and enhance what we have here. So why don't most vote for the Greens? The reason is that most of us see the Greens as 'watermelon greens' - green on the outside but bright red on the inside. Nice that they care about the environment but they need educating about the actual policies that are needed to run a country successfully and so provide the revenue necesary to do those 'good works'. It's not as if any Socialist countries have a particulalry sucessful environmental track record...

If Labour don't detach themselves from the Greens it will be too easy for a National Party politician to say "A vote for Labour is a vote for those knitted hat wearing Marxist lunatics who are attached to their hip".

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.