When it comes to casting aspersions, few insults are as
venomous, vicious or more driven by utter contempt than
accusing someone of being a ''scab''.
That is particularly the case on the left of the political
spectrum where the battles of old between capital and labour
provided the source of the term to describe those who broke
rank from the union and who were then ostracised forever in
no man's land.
A workforce which is now largely non-unionised has made such
name-calling far more infrequent, and at times sound rather
But there was nothing quaint about the leader of the Labour
Party this week insinuating colleagues who did not give him
their full support were scabs.
It was astonishing. It implied treachery in the extreme. What
the outburst really revealed was someone looking for
scapegoats for his own self-inflicted woes.
David Cunliffe actually stopped one step short of uttering
the word ''scab'' during his appearance on Campbell Live on
Wednesday evening. But he noted that in the Labour movement
''there are words we use for strike breakers''. He meant one
word. And you did not have to be Einstein to work out what
that word was. Those MPs in Mr Cunliffe's sights must be
furious at being labelled in such derogatory fashion.
In fact, Mr Cunliffe spent much of the week trying to play
the victim following the embarrassing revelation he had
helped Donghua Liu with his application for New Zealand
residency, having just 24 hours earlier denied any such
advocacy on behalf of the controversial Chinese businessman.
Mr Cunliffe countered that National had set him up, having
known for weeks about the letter he had written back in 2003
to immigration authorities on Mr Liu's behalf.
It is true National was well aware of the letter, but only
because it had conducted a document trawl to find out more
about Mr Liu after he proved to be a major nuisance to the
John Key said he did nothing with the letter as it did not
seem particularly germane to anything at the time.
That is difficult to accept. The letter would have looked
like a gift from God - especially as its contents cut right
across Mr Cunliffe's ''crony capitalism'' campaign.
If Mr Cunliffe was stitched up, he compounded things with his
wholesale denials of any contact with Mr Liu.
It begs the question why Mr Cunliffe has fronted so much of
Labour's overexaggerated efforts to paint National as a
government of sleaze, decadence and corruption rather than
standing above the fray.
The answer is that he is caught in the dilemma that faces
most leaders of the Opposition: do you keep out of the
day-to-day political squabbling only to end up being accused
of being invisible or do you lead from the front and end up
with not just getting your hands dirty, but your reputation
dragged through the mud.
Inevitably, the upshot of the Liu letter and Mr Cunliffe's
musings on ''strike breakers'' only further highlighted the
lingering factional fight in the Labour caucus between those
who went out on a limb in backing the somewhat accident-prone
but potential game-changing Mr Cunliffe and those who would
prefer the less exciting, but safer Grant Robertson in the
So far, there have been plenty of accidents, but no
game-changer. And it is hard to see where one is going to
come from in the three months left until the election.
The media, meanwhile, has dug out Labour's recently revised
constitution and its special provision which stipulates that
a leadership election within three months of a general
election is restricted to the caucus - as in the past -
rather than also taking in wider party membership.
This rule was included to deal with the sudden death or
incapacity of a leader close to an election when there is
insufficient time to conduct a vote of all party members. It
posed the obvious question: would the caucus use this as an
opportunity to dump Mr Cunliffe?If that and Mr Cunliffe's
blunder was not enough to set the leadership drums beating, a
Fairfax poll had Labour's support slumping to a dreadful 23%
and sending a cold shiver down the spines of electorate-less
list-only MPs dependent on a healthy party vote.
By Thursday morning, things looked like they might spin out
of control. Mr Cunliffe, who usually spends Thursdays out in
the region, flew from Auckland to Wellington for what was
swiftly (and accurately) dubbed as a ''crisis meeting'' of
senior MPs and staff in Labour's wing at Parliament.
No matter what faction of the caucus they were from, everyone
present would have been able to agree on one thing: disunity
Voters hate it - and punish it.
Labour polling in the low 20s percentage wise was in no-one's
interest pro-Cunliffe or anti-Cunliffe. If Labour replicated
National's disastrous showing in 2002 when that party got
just over 20% of the vote, Labour would be potentially
looking at another two terms in Opposition.
National's vote collapsed in 2002 in part because the polls
showed it had no chance of winning. Centre-right voters
consequently voted tactically for New Zealand First and Peter
Dunne's United Future in the hope those parties would be part
of a governing arrangement and thereby constrain Labour from
adopting and implementing policies of the left.
The good news for Labour is that the centrist options are no
longer so much of a threat. United Future is no longer
registering in some polls, while New Zealand First has
struggled to make much of an impact in the current term.
The worry for Labour is that its vote may just be collapsing
through people simply losing patience with the party.
The priority at Thursday's meeting was to paper over the
cracks and restore a semblance of unity by killing off the
leadership speculation, however far-fetched it might have
been. Mr Robertson duly did so by stating pretty
categorically after the meeting that he would not be mounting
a challenge before September's election.
It would have been an easy thing to say. Mr Cunliffe has
steered the Good Ship Labour on to the rocks. There is no
point in Mr Robertson also being part of the election-day