Labour conference delegates hand National a big stick

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 balls.

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 his party.

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 get real.

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 important.

Finance was not the only job Mr Cunliffe was hankering for in Opposition.

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 demands.

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 Labour Party?

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 helped.

 - John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent



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