Talk of a Labour leadership vote to be held this Tuesday blossomed and then faded on Sunday as we went from escalating tension to peace suddenly breaking out. Here’s what went down.
The Mallard-led old guard – having already run a failed attempt at making the democratic model of leader election a charade by setting an impossibly high bar to spark a vote – thought they had found a procedural trick to embarrass Cunliffe. They could have an caucus-only vote under the old rules, which would require 60% opposition to Shearer to succeed. Shearer would win and Cunliffe would be fatally damaged before any full leadership vote involving the party, and they could use the vote as an excuse to demote Cunliffe. But then they realised that:
a) there’s no alternative to Shearer on the table, so there’s no call for a vote, and just because no-one chooses to stand up this time doesn’t mean that they can’t later. Cunliffe refused to come out to be beaten up by them in a rigged game.
b) principled MPs might stymie this blatant attempt to thwart the will of the members to have a say in the leadership and those MPs might vote to give the membership its say. It would only have taken a few MPs to turn in disgust from the old guard’s behaviour for Shearer’s leadership to collapse spectacularly in a crisis of their own making.
and c) such a move would rightly be seen as another kick in the face for Labour’s membership, which would have no legitimacy and just further entrench the memberships’ anger towards the old guard that backs Shearer… with bad consequences. Demoting the membership’s preferred leader would be a huge mistake given some of Shearer’s backers are already struggling to get support from their LECs for a 2014 candidacy.
If there is a leadership motion this week under the old rules, I expect that Cunliffe and his supporters will turn it into a nullity by voting for Shearer on the grounds that any leadership votes from now on should be under the new rules. [Update: as predicted, Cunliffe has said he will support Shearer if there is a vote this week or next]
It’s important to remember that Cunliffe hasn’t launched any coup and all this talk from Mallard and co of Cunliffe destabilising Shearer is rubbish. The membership voted itself a greater say, not Cunliffe. There has been nothing that Cunliffe has done that can be reasonably construed as an attack on the stability of the party. All he has done is left open the possibility of a challenge at the anointed time next year but that’s only fair given Shearer’s weak performance to date (one good turn in front of the autocue notwithstanding).
All this malice towards Cunliffe simply isn’t justified. He has done a bloody good job as Economic Development spokesperson (eg the manufacturing inquiry); he only did his duty as delegate, along with a majority of others, in supporting democracy in the Labour Party; and he has launched no coup or otherwise sought to undermine Shearer.
If anyone is trying to exploit the situation of the members voting for democracy, it’s the old guard trying to beat it up as a story of disloyalty to, in Mallard’s words, ‘head Cunliffe off at the pass’ rather than wait until the proper time and, if there is a challenge, let the members have their say. And the old guard are just a small minority in the party. The problem for them is, they know it.
Let’s hope that they now realise that their best interests, along with Labour’s and the Left’s lie in them turning their guns off Cunliffe and on to National for the next three months.