Barmy; loopy; stupid; crazy. Last weekend's Labour Party
conference witnessed so much political madness, both on and
off the conference floor, that the proceedings could well
have been deemed certifiable.
The handful of MPs who tried to talk sense into delegates may
agree - particularly on the vexed question of how high to set
the bar before a leadership ballot across the whole party
membership is triggered.
The MPs' advice was not only ignored. They were shouted down.
The rank-and-file saw things very differently, however. The
rewrite of the party's constitution was offering them a rare
whiff of grass-roots democracy.
They were not about to say "no thanks" even if their votes
were being manipulated for nefarious reasons.
As far as the bulk of the 600-plus delegates were concerned,
the machinations surrounding the incumbent leader and his
would-be challenger were irrelevant to the wider good - and
woe-betide the media for putting such a negative
interpretation on something so essentially wholesome.
The more immediate effect of the 40% trigger, which was
narrowly approved by the conference, was to leave David
Shearer more exposed to a challenge from David Cunliffe.
Mr Shearer is up for re-endorsement in February under the old
rules, which stipulated such a vote take place in the middle
year of the three-year parliamentary term. Ever helpful to
the current leader, the conference decided the 40% trigger
should apply to February's vote.
Again, delegates rationalised this on the grounds of
democracy.The glum faces in the Shearer camp on the Saturday
night spoke very much to the contrary.
It seemed to escape delegates' notice that they had also
handed the National Party a stick with which to beat them.
From here on, the leader will be subject to a post-election
endorsement vote by the caucus which must take place no later
than three months after polling day. Failure by a leader to
secure more than 60% backing from his or her colleagues will
trigger a leadership vote involving the whole party.
The upshot is National will spend the election campaign
delightedly claiming the Labour leader cannot guarantee he or
she will still be in charge three months after the election.
Moreover, the new method of electing the leader gives a slice
of the action to affiliated trade unions. You can imagine how
National will exploit that.
The question is why - bar Andrew Little and Maryan Street -
no-one else seemed perturbed by this howler.
When they were not naively setting things up to the advantage
of the old enemy, delegates occupied themselves with such
pressing matters as lowering the voting age to 16 - something
for which there is absolutely no demand - and ordering school
boards of trustees to allow same-sex couples to attend school
Then there was the remit requiring 50% gender equality among
officials on the party's electorate committees.
When it was pointed out that most committees had three
officials - thus requiring two of the three positions now be
held by women - the conference determined that an extra
position such as an assistant treasurer could be created.
This kind of nonsense shows that political correctness is
alive and well in Labour.
It speaks of a party that is out of touch with mainstream New
Zealand. And it speaks of a leader who has no control over
Fortunately for Mr Shearer, his rival is a dab hand at
overplaying his hand.
The paid-up members of the David Cunliffe Fan Club need to
They need in particular to ask themselves the following
rather discomforting question: if, as they say, Mr Cunliffe
is the right person to lead the Labour Party to electoral
triumph, then why is he not already the leader?
Even his enemies in the party concede that had he knuckled
down when Labour went into opposition in late 2008 and he had
done the hard yards as finance spokesman over the following
three years, then he would have become leader in the wake of
Phil Goff stepping down.
Mr Cunliffe might not have been liked by many in the party,
but he could have earned their respect - and that is more
Finance was not the only job Mr Cunliffe was hankering for in
According to insiders, he also (unsuccessfully) lobbied the
caucus to appoint a second deputy leader. No prizes for
guessing who intended filling the job.
Such an unquenchable ambition sees him exempt himself from
the laws of politics to which everyone else adheres.
It was not the first time and - as the past week or so has
shown - not the last time that he has overreached himself.
That, in as nutshell, is the tragedy of David Cunliffe. He
possesses most of the attributes required of a leader -
intellect, political acumen, the ability to articulate the
party's position on something in simple, easily understood
language. He is pragmatic enough to bend when necessary, yet
principled enough to stick to principle when the occasion
But like Icarus, the figure of Greek mythology, Mr Cunliffe
tends to fly too close to the sun.
Has he forever blown his chances of becoming leader of the
Were Mr Shearer to have a bad 2013, it is conceivable Labour
could recall him from backbench exile. But the polls would
have to be in disaster territory.
The question now is whether colleagues could work under him.
One of this week's most significant statements was made by
one such colleague, Chris Hipkins, who accused Mr Cunliffe of
undermining the Labour team. Mr Hipkins is Labour's chief
whip and conduit between leader and the party's backbenches.
When the chief whip speaks thus, watch out. It is serious
trouble for whomever is in the chief whip's sights.
The other casualty of what John Key describes as the now very
"public war" within Labour is the party's ability to project
unity and stability.
That is a serious handicap for Labour which may well have to
patch together some kind of governing arrangement which
accommodates both the reforming zeal of the Greens and the
reactionary predilections of New Zealand First.
That is hardly a combination which inspires confidence in its
likely longevity - especially if Labour is reliant on the
votes of MPs from both parties to pass legislation.
To what extent voters fix on stability arguments is a moot
point. However, the traumatic series of events before, during
and after Labour's annual conference could hardily have
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald