Could things get any worse for David Cunliffe than they
did this week?
It is quite conceivable they might, of course.
Mr Cunliffe's leadership of Labour still has a way to go
before it hits rock bottom.
But this week's very public exhibition of the disunity which
flows freely and abundantly from the deep schisms within the
party may well have proved to be sufficiently damaging to
have put victory in September's general election out of
Senior Labour figures are bracing themselves for an expected
hit in the opinion polls, but are confident it will be
Before this week's disasters, Labour's own pollsters were
said to have been registering the party's vote at about 30%.
That is close to the 29.5% recorded in the most recent
However, usually reliable sources say National's private
polling over the past week points to the real scale of
Labour's horror story with that party's support crumbling to
The start of the week was punishing enough in itself with
Labour squirming in humiliation following National's
cruise-missile-like strike which removed the opposition
party's current prime asset from the forthcoming election
Labour's embarrassment at losing Shane Jones as a result of a
quite brilliant piece of politics on Murray McCully's part
left Labour powerless to hit back at National.
But that was no excuse for the outbreak of factional warfare
in the form of the Labour left indulging in a danse
macabre on Mr Jones' still warm political corpse.
This would not have been in National's script. The governing
party would consequently have been pinching itself at its
good fortune in provoking such disarray.
For those in Labour's ranks still interested in winning
September's election, observing the self-destructive
behaviour must have been the equivalent of watching members
of the orchestra on the heavily-listing Titanic
fighting over who owned the instruments.
Mr Cunliffe has had his share of slip-ups this year, most
notably the exposure of his use of a private trust to hide
donations to his campaign during the three-way contest for
the Labour leadership last year.
But his mistakes now pale into relative insignificance in
comparison to this week's calamities which began with Mr
McCully luring Mr Jones with a job offer as a roving
Pacific-wide economic ambassador.
Sure, a disenchanted Mr Jones may have been ripe for the
picking, given that Labour's new method of electing its
leader would have more than likely shut him out of the job
for good - unless the party's MPs could have agreed to put
him up as the sole candidate and present the wider party with
a fait accompli.
But Mr McCully getting Mr Jones to quit Parliament was still
a lesson in the art of politics.
Mr Jones had been one of the only two Labour MPs causing
National the slightest bit of grief - the other being Grant
Robertson with his hounding of Judith Collins.
Mr Jones' departure immediately prompted an at times bitter
argument over whether he had been of any real value to Labour
during his nine years in Parliament.
As far as those on Labour's left flank were concerned, he was
just an over-ambitious blowhard who had a way with words but
who was driven by self-interest, rather than being imbued
with team spirit - something which was amply illustrated by
the shocking timing of his going as far as his many critics
They had two words to mark - or rather celebrate - his exit:
For those on Labour's right flank, Mr Jones had been someone
who, for all his faults, could reach into segments of the
voting public which those on the left professed to represent,
but with which they had long lost touch.
Given he was such a polarising figure, postmortems were
But this argument was as much about Labour's direction as it
was about Mr Jones.
Along with other colleagues, Mr Jones was worried that Mr
Cunliffe shifting the party leftward could only extend so far
and for so long.
At some point, Labour's leader would have to bow to the
brutal electoral mathematics which require the two major
parties to fight for occupying rights in the centre.
The great fear of Mr Jones and others was that the seeming
chopping and changing by Mr Cunliffe would end up satisfying
Mr Jones' departure has stoked even more worry for the
party's centrists that the left will see it as a victory in
the simmering and debilitating power struggle for control of
There has been a lot of talk in the past few days about
Labour being a ''broad church'' for all-comers.
Indeed, former leader Helen Clark's strategy for winning
elections had Labour building relationships of mutual benefit
with sections of society who were in the minority - such as
the gay community - or felt they were in the minority - such
as the elderly.
A fair chunk of these minorities have formal representation
within Labour's organisation.
But in seeking to secure their pound of flesh in terms of
policy gains in return for votes, their agendas have become
increasingly out of sync with the far more apolitical or
conservative-leaning wider New Zealand public.
With the left of the party running its own agenda which puts
purity ahead of pragmatism, Labour's appeal is shrinking.
Those voters whom Labour needs to capture will see Mr Jones'
exit as a further narrowing of Labour's appeal.
The ''broad church'' is turning into The Temple of the
Tyranny of the Minority.
Those voters will also view the disdain shown towards Mr
Jones and accompanying calls for the purging from Parliament
of such Labour stalwarts as Phil Goff, Annette King and
Trevor Mallard as pretty solid evidence that Labour's
disunity is such that the party is not yet fit to govern.
Much of the arguing of the past few days has taken place in
social media and the blogosphere.
Too late, Labour has discovered these tools can be
They are fine when it comes to disseminating a message, but
not so fine when the protagonists in a digitally-sourced
debate start hanging out their party's dirty washing simply
to score points against a competing faction.
If nothing else, Mr Cunliffe has to restore some discipline
to the party's proceedings.
His difficulty is that doing so requires him to confront
those on the left of the party whose votes won him the
He is scheduled to make a speech to members of Labour's youth
wing this weekend.
He is expected to stress Labour must remain a broad church
party; that Labour can target policies both to the left and
The big question is how firm and insistent he is in pitching
this message - and whether his audience is willing to heed
the obvious warnings the speech will implicitly carry.
• John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald