Why it’s to the detriment of us all, and we need to move on. For now.
At the end of this weekend’s Labour Annual Conference, delegates were happy. Speaking as a delegate, we had made the first and most important changes to the party in its history – we democratised the leadership, we enforced gender equity rules that have real teeth, and we adopted a new and far more effective way to make and communicate policy. We also voted through significantly important policies – we demanded a clearer stance on National Standards, and we got it. We wanted a clear stance on marriage equality, and we got it. We wanted policies that will rejuvenate and strengthen our democracy through civics education and a move to lower the voting age over the long term, and we got it.
Then there was that speech.
But every night, after we got home and turned on the TV or visited a news website (or even some of the blogs), we didn’t see those stories we felt proud about. We saw Patrick Gower and Brook Sabin and Jessica Mutch sticking the camera in David Cunliffe’s face and we saw him repeatedly refusing to say whether he supported Shearer. We saw others do it too, but a large number of Labour MPs simply said “I support the leader” and we never saw them in front of the camera again.
The frustration over this disparity in coverage was evident when, at the conclusion of Shearer’s speech, a number of delegates told Gower exactly what they thought of his obsession with Cunliffe. Some of it was not what you would call “polite” language.
It’s easy to understand why – an immensely progressive policy platform, a future-proofed party structure that will appeal to new members, the best speech by a New Zealand politician in decades – the party felt good about itself. The enthusiasm was back. But that’s not what was being reported. The leadership drama overran everything.
Cunliffe squares a very large portion of the blame for that. His ambition for the leadership is obvious, and his play for it over the weekend has potentially derailed his bid, let alone the whole narrative of the Labour party. According to some on this blog, and a few others, David Cunliffe has the universal support of the membership. But unless they’ve done polling of members, it’s an utterly ridiculous suggestion. If you look at the most controversial constitutional change, the 40% February trigger rule, it only passed by 27 votes. We all know that a large number of people would have been motivated to vote for that because they were in “Team Cunliffe” – it’s clear he benefits from the lower trigger, being the only challenger to Shearer. You can clumsily extrapolate that voting division to get a sense that Cunliffe is in no way universally supported – at absolute best, it’s split down the middle, presuming “Team Shearer” voted against and “Team Cunliffe” voted for.
But it’s hard to imagine the distractions that have bumped all the details of the best conference in years out of the limelight reflects well on Cunliffe. He would have to be worried about his association to those frustrations and how that would affect his share of the members’ votes. Frankly, he’d also have to be worried about Shearer’s support following that damn speech.
There’s also been a lot of speculation on the motivation of Shearer to call an early vote. But if we want to keep the leadership drama out of the headlines until February so we can talk about all the amazing things we did this weekend, it’s the only way. Shearer knows he has to do it again in February – the constitution rightly says so – so we need something to keep that story on ice until then. The only way is to have a vote now. It will pass, and pass easily.
Rather than thwarting the membership as some suggest, an early vote will allow Shearer to say he has the support of caucus and free him to talk about something else. Something more important, like how the government’s hands-off-the-wheel approach is sending us speeding into a roadside culvert. In fact, I suggest that not having a vote and keeping this debate alive until February is thwarting the membership. It was evident that the rank and file were annoyed by the leadership speculation dominating the weekend, and Shearer needs to do something about that.
Regardless of which “team” you may or may not be on, we need this story on ice until February so that we can get stuck into the government, and not each other. However, following this weekend there will be a number of people who are in “Team Cunliffe” questioning that choice; his desire to lead the party has come on too strongly and has shifted the coverage away from everything that excited and united the membership over the weekend.