David Cunliffe has now been leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party for 100 days and I thought this to be an appropriate time for reflection on how he has performed so far.
A bit of perspective is helpful and as someone with an insider’s view of what was happening can I say that the leadership contenders campaign tour was exhilarating and exhausting both at the same time. I do not know how David, Shane and Grant kept it up. Shearer’s resignation came out of left field in terms of its timing and it is clear that the camps struggled initially to get themselves organised. But they all hit the road, they got their social media campaigns up and running and each of them gave it their all.
The result was resoundingly clear. While on the first ballot David lost the caucus vote he won 60% of the membership vote and 70% of the affiliates vote. The membership and activists expressed a very clear preference. And someone who had been relegated to the back benches only 8 months beforehand became Labour leader.
On the day he became leader David said “[t]omorrow morning we start our election campaign against the Key government.”
And that is what he did.
The day after the election result I was astounded to read David pronouncing a very deft line about the TPPA. Labour would not support the treaty if the text was not released. Both radicals and moderates would be attracted to the notion either that we do not sign up to the agreement at all, or that we only do if the public knows what it is letting itself in for. Finally a Labour leader had learned about triangulation of issues.
David’s first question time in Parliament was mostly good although a couple of misspoken words put a dent in it. But the substance of the questions and what came from it was fine. And there have been subsequent occasions during question time where he completely and utterly messed with John Key. I cannot recall this happening before during Key’s reign and although the effect on the population at large may be minimal, the effect on morale in the parties is significant.
There was then the caucus reshuffle. Under Shearer and Goff there had developed a trend for there to be an A team (or an ABC team) and a B team. As Charles Chauvel passionately said the party needed both of its wings to fly and the division should not happen. It is clear that David respected this, his reshuffle resulted in Shane Jones occupying a senior position and others such as Clayton Cosgrove, Annette King and Chris Hipkins occupying senior positions obviously on merit.
David could then state that all of the MPs were on the train and the train had left the station. Of course the corollary of this is that getting off a moving train is a very dangerous thing to do.
After this there was an attempt, birther style, to attack David’s credibility specifically his claim that he had some involvement in the formation of Fonterra while working at Boston Consultancy Group. Cameron Slater posted many articles on the subject and the time sheets were the subject of almost as much scrutiny as Barak Obama’s birth certificate. Matthew Hooton went feral on Radio New Zealand which wisely posted an apology and retraction. Hooton also gave an apology although it appears through gritted teeth.
I expect that further attacks will be made as time goes by. But this one was badly targeted and clumsy and caused damage to the credibility of the attackers rather than to David.
Then there was the Auckland local body election results. David pledged considerable personal support to the candidates. In the Whau ward which occupies much of his seat a Labour branded campaign successfully replaced National aligned Noleen Raffles with Ross Clow and the Local Board went from having one Labour aligned member out of seven to five Labour members. In Henderson the results went from zero to three (although one is under threat from action related to a recount) and in the Waitakere Ranges area (my home turf) the Labour Green Future West ticket went from three to all six local board positions.
And then there was the Labour Conference in Christchurch. It was the best attended conference for many years apart from Auckland’s 2012 conference where interest was intense because of the Constitutional proposals to give members a say in future leadership contests. David’s speech was well received.
This was followed by the Christchurch East By Election. David put a lot of time and effort into this campaign and a lot was riding on it. A loss or even a modest win would have been a major set back. But after a stonking win the sense of momentum in Labour’s direction continued. The win was especially important because the loss of party votes in the Christchurch region at the last election was a major reason for National’s return to power.
The No Asset Sales referendum results were then announced and with a two to one vote against asset sales the result was again resounding.
The polls have been bouncing all round the place but the poll of polls shows an initial significant lift during and following the leadership campaign with a subsequent drop off but essentially Labour Green is neck and neck with National.
The morale in the party as a whole has lifted considerably. Membership is well up on the figure 12 months ago. Certainly in the Auckland region there is a determination to win which was missing beforehand.
Will David become the country’s next Prime Minister? Anything can happen but this time next year he could be PM. But I know that the work of both Labour and Green activists will be vital and he will not succeed if there is not a concerted grass roots campaign to replace this Government.