Bloodletting seems assured within the Labour Party, following a rather extraordinary annual conference. The possibility of a leadership coup by David Cunliffe was obviously the big news of the conference – finally confirming what was only ever rumoured and discussed in the blogosphere. There should be no doubt now that things are going to get messier. In the short term Cunliffe and his supporters have the most to fear, going on Duncan Garner’s analysis and sources – see Cunliffe backs off, demotion imminent.
But in the longer-term the blood spilt could well be from ‘Camp Shearer’.
Leader David Shearer is about to act against Cunliffe, and probably feels he has to if he is to have any chance of surviving after a conference that has been described by various political journalists as ‘a catastrophe', ‘a train wreck of a conference’, and ‘a disaster’. Letting this current standoff fester until February is not an option. Shearer’s best chance of survival is to act quickly and strongly. He needs the equivalent of an internal Labour ‘snap election’, to be seen to put Cunliffe in his place and take away some of his power. The problem with punishing Cunliffe is that it will be seen by many members as punishing them, and as deeply unfair.
Despite Shearer’s assertion that he will decide when his leadership gets put to the test, the reality is his options are limited. At the moment, it appears that Cunliffe is tactically retreating – see James Henderson’s post on The Standard – War and peace
– which explains that the ‘Mallard-led old guard’ of the caucus ‘thought they had found a procedural trick to embarrass Cunliffe’ by bringing forward a leadership vote, but Cunliffe has simply sidestepped this by refusing ‘to come out to be beaten up by them in a rigged game’. The latest on Cunliffe’s stance can be seen in Kieran Campbell’s Cunliffe backs Shearer as leadership crisis calms
The best analysis, so far, is from Gordon Campbell, who thinks the focus on the leadership struggle ignores more fundamental strategic issues for the party: ‘It is all very well to talk about the need for unity, but a unity that merely wallpapers over the party’s real divisions is simply a cosmetic job done for the benefit of the media, and it will not last. Either Labour has to choose to become a genuine party of the left again and contest the entire spectrum of centre left issues effectively with the Greens – or the party rank and file will need to fully and consciously embrace an MMP logic whereby a Shearer-led party positions itself deliberately in the fuzzy centre and willingly cedes the party’s traditional ground to the Greens, with all of the patience and discipline that this will require. It can’t do both things at once’. – see: On the Labour Party ructions
Most of the members actually doing the voting and talking had quite a different view. For them, it was an unusually democratic and meaningful conference, in stark contrast to the stage-managed affairs which serve merely as platforms for the leadership. It is clear that the party has modernised and democratised, asserting itself 30 years after being sidelined by Rogernomics.
Longer term, this may be far more of a problem for Shearer than Cunliffe, as Tracy Watkins observes: ‘The conference also laid bare the growing distance between the wider party and the caucus, and particularly the direction Mr Shearer is seeking to take it, toward the political centre’ – see: Labour falls into line as Shearer bares his teeth
Watkins says that although Shearer’s effort was pretty good in parts, ‘the speech overall was pedestrian and used too many cliches to tick too many boxes. His mannerisms were luke-warm, he didn't sell his three-point lists, when the opportunities to ad lib and connect with his audience came, he baulked’.
Watkins also makes an important point: amidst all the maneuvering, number crunching and ideological debate ‘there's one thing that can make a politician Mr Popular in the school yard – the whiff of victory.’ The polls, in the end, will probably decide which David leads Labour into the next election.
Shearer clearly moved leftwards in his conference speech, obviously playing to his audience, but also responding to the need to see off Cunliffe as a challenger from the left. The main policy announcement – a housing construction programme – was evidence of this. It is, of course, typical of Shearer and modern Labour and a classic 'third way' policy. It's not about increasing social housing - not about state house building, which is desperately needed.
Instead, it's about underwriting the private sector to produce a mass of low-cost housing to sell to the public. In line with the concept of SOEs, such a measure wouldn’t be any sort of socialism – or even social democracy – but instead a pro-market intervention on market terms. Shearer kept emphasising that a Labour government wouldn’t actually spend more on social housing, but just provide the money to underwrite the production of housing aimed at a gap in the market rather than a replacement of the market.
The end result of the weekend may be contradictory. Shearer has probably ended up in a stronger position, both as a result of his speech and willingness to confront Cunliffe head on, but it has also confirmed (and accelerated) a major divide within Labour.