It’s time for David Cunliffe to step aside. Not to contest an election, but permanently.
Not that all of the weight of Labour’s election defeat can be placed squarely on the shoulders of David Cunliffe. He did make some serious mistakes – undisclosed trust funds come to mind. Cunliffe’s apology for being a man was also a serious misstep – the intentions were all right, but the framing was all wrong. However, this was compounded by a series of attacks early on in Cunliffe’s leadership, both from inside the caucus and by media. If the tactics revealed in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics are anything to go by, Whale Oil probably had a hand in it too. These factors, as far as I can see, have outweighed the mistakes that Cunliffe made.
Unfair as this is, the context that David Cunliffe now finds himself in is not one that will be any friendlier to him in a leadership election. By contesting this leadership election, David Cunliffe has made the wrong decision and is possible plunging Labour into more turmoil. If re-elected, and there is certainly a chance of that, although presumably with a substantially reduced majority, it will be an uphill battle for Cunliffe to recapture the support of the Labour caucus, and to persuade New Zealand to give him another chance.
On the other hand, if, say, Grant Robertson were to run unopposed then the party would have a leader by Christmas. Labour would avoid the nastiness and the expense of the election, and will be under a leader who is agreeable with the party and firmly has the support of caucus. Furthermore, Cunliffe would most likely have benefited by peacefully stepping down with a good caucus position, which he’ll lose if he fights and loses an election, or wins the election but doesn’t last until 2017. Of course, this makes a mockery of the democratisation process that the Party went through in 2012. Do we really want this Labour Caucus to set a precedent of making a lot of deals to ensure that a candidate agreeable to only them to become leader, while bypassing the rest of the party? (Not that this refers to Grant Robertson, he is agreeable to most people but it’s worth thinking about for future elections).
The other main contender to Robertson appears to be David Shearer. As Labour has slipped in the polls, many have looked back ruefully at the mid 30s that Shearer was delivering. However, Shearer returning would be too good a target on the party. Labour would seem out of ideas, unable to refresh itself and relying on a leader who many did see as steering the party towards defeat. John Key would have a field day. On the other hand, Grant Robertson is a high profile MP who is widely recognised and respected. Of any of the realistic candidates available in this election, he is the only one that could bring the renewal that the party needs.
I still think that David Cunliffe would make a fantastic Prime Minister. This withdrawal in support is not because of a loss of faith in his ability. However, as I have said, the context that Cunliffe and Labour now find themselves in mean that the longer it takes for a leader to be elected, the less stable the party.
And if David Cunliffe is elected, the party will certainly not be stable. As far as I can see, Grant Robertson is the only realistic contender.
However, if David Cunliffe can outline a clear plan for how he can lead Labour out of the slump that it is in right now, then it is worth seriously considering retaining him. This seems unlikely though.
It’s difficult to say, but unless you can perform miracles, it’s time to go David.