Uneasy Seat: David Shearer is a poor communicator and David Cunliffe communicates very well (mostly because he has something to say). It's a surefire recipe for internal party tensions - which are now on display. But the "two very senior MPs" who've been telling toxic tales to TV3's Duncan Garner cannot change the fact that Mr Shearer's leadership has failed to inspire.
THAT DAVID CUNLIFFE’S ENEMIES waited until he was overseas before attacking him bears testimony to his growing political strength. For “two very senior [Labour] MPs” to brief against their caucus colleague to TV3’s Political Editor, Duncan Garner, the ABC (Anybody But Cunliffe) faction must be very worried indeed.
The cynical calculation that persuaded Mr Cunliffe’s enemies to unite behind Mr Shearer in December 2011 has delivered a very paltry harvest. The public was prepared to give Labour’s new boss a fair go at growing into a credible Opposition leader, but their patience isn’t endless. Above all other things, a political leader must be a communicator – and Mr Shearer isn’t. Not surprisingly, the major public opinion polls are all now registering declining levels of public support for both Mr Shearer and his party.
To gain some idea of just how poor a communicator Mr Shearer is, pay a visit to the NZ on Screen website and watch the 1973 interview of Labour Leader and Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, by the celebrated British broadcaster, David Frost. Not only does “Big Norm” speak in fully-formed sentences, unpunctuated by umms, errs and you-knows, but with the calm assurance and persuasive eloquence that only a person in absolute command of his facts, his thoughts, his convictions and, most importantly, himself, is able to project.
We are told that Mr Shearer’s minders have engaged the former broadcaster, Ian Fraser, to help their boss communicate more effectively. His chances of success must be rated as low. It is precisely because Mr Shearer is unsure of his facts, confused in his thinking and uncertain of his convictions that he finds it so difficult to remain in command of himself and, therefore, of what he says. It is significant that the most favourable reports of Mr Shearer’s communication skills have both come from social gatherings where little more than agreeable emoting was required (Backbenches and the EPMU Conference).
Mr Cunliffe is, of course, a highly accomplished communicator – especially on television. More important than his aptitude for speaking in coherent sentences, however, is his ability to persuade and even, on occasion, to inspire his listeners. The contrast between himself and his leader could hardly be starker (or more likely to enrage those rivals who suffer by comparison).
Mr Cunliffe’s growth as a politician is the product of his willingness to subject his ideas about what politics means in the Twenty-First Century to a searching and, above all, critical analysis. It has led him to question many of the economic and social assumptions which currently inform the Labour Caucus’s approach to policy formation. Almost alone among his colleagues, Mr Cunliffe has identified the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences as both the reason and the opportunity for Labour to make a decisive break with the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy. He senses the hunger of Labour members, supporters and voters for a complete and radical review of the Party’s expectations of government: of what it hopes to achieve … and how.
Among those caucus colleagues unwilling to abandon Labour’s attachment to the conventional economic and social wisdom, this radicalism marks Mr Cunliffe out as “naïve and stupid”. To Labour’s rank-and-file, however, it marks him out as the man who should be leader.
If the polls continue to register the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the Shearer-led Labour Opposition, Mr Cunliffe’s enemies will do everything within their power to ensure that he is not elected as Mr Shearer’s replacement. They are terrified that the advent of Labour’s new Electoral College will encourage the party’s rank-and-file to not only assert their preference for a new leader, but also, availing themselves of the new procedures for selecting candidates, for a wholesale purge of the non-performers and time-servers who long ago ceased to advance Labour’s cause. It is to the cautious Grant Robertson that Mr Shearer’s erstwhile backers will turn, and the price of their support will be that the Opposition’s front-benchers (with the obvious exception of Mr Cunliffe and his allies) stay exactly where they are.
Mr Robertson would be most unwise to have any part in such a Faustian bargain. Labour must change or it will die. Not quickly and dramatically, but slowly and ignominiously, as the best among its ranks depart, and the worst cling on – for reasons of personal vanity, or from fear of a community they have given no reason to welcome them back – until, at last, the navigation lights of the good ship Labour are swallowed up in “the running straits of history”.
If Labour is to be saved, then its younger MPs must not resist but make common cause with Mr Cunliffe. This is the only alliance that holds out the slightest hope for a renewal of the party’s purpose and the rebirth of its fighting spirit. Mr Robertson and his friends have time on their side: they, unlike the political movement to which they have devoted their lives, can afford to wait.
The Labour Caucus has nothing to lose but Trevor Mallard.
It has an election to win.
Cunliffe and Robertson unite!
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.