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David Shearer has again faced down his rival, David Cunliffe. Now he must decide what to do with him.
One model is that used by Labour leader Helen Clark in early 1996 after successfully seeing off a challenge from Michael Cullen, Jim Sutton, Annette King and others worried about her disastrous poll ratings; and by National leader Don Brash after successfully ousting Bill English in 2003.
Ms Clark unified her team by sacrificing her deputy David Caygill in favour of Dr Cullen and giving Mr Sutton and Ms King important roles.
The Clark/Cullen partnership turned out to be one of the most successful, politically, in New Zealand’s history, despite them never forming a personal friendship, while Mr Sutton and Ms King went on to make major contributions to her government, including in trade, agriculture and health.
The issues on which he based his leadership campaign, meant Dr Brash could not give Mr English the top finance role, but he ensured he could make a serious contribution by appointing him to the important education portfolio.
Mr English grieved through the summer of 2003-04 but returned to work committed to make his mark in education and by 2005 was jointly announcing National’s election-year tax-cut package with Dr Brash and finance spokesman John Key.
These successful precedents mean there is pressure on Mr Shearer to similarly offer Mr Cunliffe an olive branch. He should resist it.
Mr Cunliffe was offered an olive branch in 2008, after his leadership aspirations failed after Ms Clark’s defeat, when incoming Labour leader Phil Goff made him finance spokesman.
Unlike Dr Cullen and Mr English, Mr Cunliffe did not respond positively and get to work on election-winning policy. Instead, he spent the next three years positioning himself to take over from Mr Goff after a 2011 defeat and even took a holiday during the election campaign.
Now, audaciously, he has the cheek to give speeches saying Labour lost in 2011 because its policy was no different from National’s! Whose job is it to develop differentiated policy if not the finance spokesman?
Despite his failure to do the finance job, Mr Cunliffe expected to be anointed leader after Mr Goff’s 2011 loss, and went around the Labour membership ludicrously positioning himself as the visionary left-wing candidate.
Labour MPs – those who have worked most closely with Mr Cunliffe – saw through the façade and rejected him, opting instead for Mr Shearer.
Mr Shearer was advised at the time to try to push Mr Cunliffe out of parliament altogether the way Mr Key and Mr English did to Dr Brash in 2006.
Mr Shearer rejected that advice. Instead – wrongly, as it turned out – he decided to give Mr Cunliffe another chance to accept his colleagues would never support his leadership aspirations and to show he could be a team player, and appointed him to the pivotal economic development portfolio.
Again, Mr Cunliffe decided not to respond positively to the olive branch. He made no real policy contribution through 2012 and allowed leadership speculation to fester, culminating in the fiasco surrounding Labour’s annual conference in November, wrecked by his supporters and his own mischievously or incompetently incomplete comments to the media.
Despite having been confirmed as party leader three times in a little over a year, Mr Shearer can have no confidence that Mr Cunliffe will accept today’s result by behaving any differently than his record suggests.
There is no point trying to unify the party by granting the New Lynn MP a senior role. The Clark/Cullen or Brash/English olive-branch approach just won’t work.
Mr Shearer should look instead at how Mr Key and Mr English ruthlessly despatched Dr Brash in 2006 as his model.
By getting him out of parliament altogether, Mr Key made sure Dr Brash could not become a focal point for any National MPs who were uncomfortable with the centrist direction he intended to take the party.
Any suggestion Dr Brash might ever return to the leadership was pre-emptively void and National was accordingly unified around the new direction Mr Key and Mr English had decided to take the party.
Mr Cunliffe and his crew have been a drag on Labour’s ability to unify for four years and there is no sign they have any intention of changing. The best way for Mr Shearer to unify the party is to cut his throat now by indicating he will never be returned to a senior role.
If it leads to a byelection in New Lynn, so much the better. Byelections are always good for oppositions and Mr Shearer’s promise of 100,000 cheap houses is bound to be popular among Labour voters out west.
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