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Cunliffe's throat must now be cut

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.

More by Matthew Hooton

Comments and questions

It's not only Cunliffe who wants to be top mongrel, it's the other parties to the four-headed monster who all want the power too... Except none have the charisma, intelligence and outright personality, credibility and honest ethics to overthrow NZ's most popular PM in living memory.

Even as a four or five-headed coalition monster, they'd be lucky to match National. Combined as a "coalition of the desperate but willing" none will have the outright horsepower to outgun National and the public will see through the populist rhetoric and once again vote for a credible, believable political party... Not a four-headed monster that cannot help attack itself constantly.

Ask any of the four who will be Finance Minister. And sit back and watch the snarling and festering infighting between them.

So saying that, Shearer will think he reins supreme, but in reality he's holding the poisoned chalice... And no one wants to strip him of it... Yet.

And the current prime minister has all those trades, right?

Trades, or traits? There's a huge difference...

The credibilty of your point was flushed down the toilet almost as quickly as the UN's latest report on how effective Comrade Auntie has been since her time there.

Have you be a paid member of the National Parties propaganda wing for long?

"NZ's most popular PM in living memory." - Only if you're a two year old!
Perhaps you could you give us a list of all the great things Key and National have done since being in power?...
Can't think of any?...
Neither can I!

With the election of John Key I expected a dynamic approach of change and new policy direction. Nothing like that has eventuated. Any changes are superficial and almost meaningless.

Politically we have a clever politician but not a leader for NZ.

I agree with Solidarity.

Can't say I agree with you but a view well put that actually makes good sense.

Yes, I agree. He is quite good at NZ politics while he has a weak opposition and a giddy media that has given him a fairly easy ride, but a leader with a vision he is not. He would never have made it to Downing Street if his parents had stayed in the UK.

The man is talking about popularity - as in ratings ! Not whether or not the intransigent looney lefties like him...

Is he? I'd have thought if he was talking about votes, he'd be close.

But it seems not. In 1990 Jim Bolger rocked in with 67 seats to Labour's 29. And he - it turned out - was one of the best National PMs ever.

Especially that bit about Treaty settlements. Genius. Although I recall that Labour supporters thought differently at the time. And National supporters, including Hooton, think differently now.

I could, but I don't have the time or energy today. Instead, i'll just refer you to the WhaleOil blog - where there's also credible political debate allowed...

... and yes, even the Labour trolls are encouraged to put forward credible comment ... if they have any? Be aware though, you'll need more than just populist slogans and propaganda to avoid being thoroughly ridiculed for silly comments.

I must admit I am amazed the the NZ love affair with Key (and let's be truthful, it is only with Key - there is no substance in the rest of National).
What I dearly hope for is a leader of our country who has vision. Not just some arrogant, ignorant, smug git who has managed to woo all the other ignorant NZers. I don't know if Shearer is the answer.
What is the answer is that we as NZers vote for politicians who can take NZ forward. And not just treat the elections like a popularity contest. If only you the rest of the Key supporters would take off your rose-tinted monocles....

Anonymous, how about the fact that he and his government have steered NZ through the most difficult economic times since the 1930's whilst retaining economic stability. Before Labour were voted out in 2008, treasury predicted unemployment would be 7.1% by 2011. Having been left with no cash and billions of dollars of future liabilities legislated by Labour, National and Key have managed to hold the country's economy together and the vast majority have not suffered greatly. That is why he is the most popular PM in living memory and why National, by themselves, carry nearly half the votes in current polls.
There is no surprise that you "can't think of any". Thinking is clearly not your strong point.

What buffoonery. Labour managed the financial crisis by having the lowest Government debt in the western world. National did sweet bugger all since except to create a deficit by giving their friends, patrons and supporters tax cuts.

National will be celebrating. They know that the only one who could lead Labour to victory over them is David Cunliffe. Shearer has no show.

All the old dogs like Mallard and King live another day. The Green Party will now defintely take over as the true opposition.

Labour will never come near the government benches with a limp leader. Shearer never was, and never will be, a Prime Minister. At least Cunliffe looks like he has some mojo. With the pathetic Key government trying to convince they're taking New Zealand somewhere, the Labour Party could win the next election with a Leader showing some charisma and some mongrel.

In this country, oppositions do not win elections, Governments loose!! and hand power to the other "outfit" who ever they happen to be

right now National are "loosing" because middle NZ are bleeding or leaving for Auzzie - middle NZ are the swinging voters they decide who governs

Unless Jonkey stops posturing - being political - and starts Governing to correct the obvious structural problems in the economy - he's a "gone burger"

and yes people Mr Shearer Dr Norman and Winnie will be running the cutter - not because they are "good" because they are "different"

the outcome is in Jonkey's hands

Ah Matthew, you spell out here the politics of envy, and rightly so. Shearer needs to grow some cojones and get rid of Cunliffe, National will be praying Shearer does not grow a set over night. What transpires will be interesting - it will either be the rise or demise of Shearer.

John key the most popular PM in living memory? Ha ha ha. Get off it, mate. The most popular was Sir Michael Joseph Savage and Helen Clark.

End of story.

John Key has presided over the worst unemployment since the last National govt was in office, and the economy has not at all enjoyed any revival since the glory days of Helen Clark's record economic growth figures, high surpluses and record low unemployment.

That was in spite of Helen's policies, not because of them. Heard of the GFC and Christchurch earthquakes much?!

Comrade Clark might have had bigger balls than Savage, but outside of union meetings and party conference hype, she was just another tired, has-been, too long in the tooth and well past her use-by date.

The biggest landslide election victory ever to National that resoundly sent her packing to the UN was the proof of that. Don't let that inconvenient truth get in the way of your propaganda, though. Say it enough times and some might even start to believe you.

Just a shame NZ still didn't have FPP instead of MMP - however, the good thing about MMP is that it's given the bunch of four-headed coalition each other to deal with. That's sweet, sweet poetic irony - if it wasn't so serious for NZ Inc and the credibility of our political system.

Solidarity :
Here you go again. Can you return to reality for a moment and realise that you utter bias to National is ludicrous? I didn't vote for the left last elections but find your Geobellesque attempts at the "Big Lie" entertainingly amusing, and sadly for your purpose, utterly unbelievable.

At least Helen has finally got a job that isn't paid by the NZ taxpayer - and, even better, it isn't in NZ.

Sorry to nit pick @Reality Cheque, but your assertion is only correct if New Zealand has defaulted on its regular donation to the United Nations. Although it wouldn't surprise me under National, so far as I know, that hasn't happened.

I'm not sure what you expect of a govt. Endless interference and, I suppose, whereas National have steered NZ very well right through the GFC. Go and spend a couple of months around Britain, Europe or the US and you'll realise how well NZ is doing. Think long and hard about the policies of those countries which are suffering the most.

Generally speaking, they keep trying to put out fires, but the heat's there so new ones always appear. I'm not generally a National fan, but I'll sure vote for them next election. The nonsense spouted by the Greens is frightening. I certainly would hate to see any party in who would allow them any influence at all. The current Labour bunch aren't much better.

Clark and co left NZ with structural deficits that are permanent. They left the incoming government with little or no cash. They left the incoming goverment with legislated future liabilities. They left the incoming government with forecasts of unemployment of 7.1% by 2011. It now sits at 7.3% in 2013. This is only marginally above our long-run unemployment rate of 6.7%.
Clark's government had the best economic conditions in a generation and increased government expenditure by 60%. National have had the worst economic conditions since the 1930s and have sheltered the vast majority of NZers from the fall out of the GFC. Your grasp of economics is small.

Johnny fan boy strikes back... most popular Prime Minister in living memory? BS, stop making stuff up.

and the polls would tell a slighty different story... But, we get it, you don't like him.

I neither support the Labour party nor David Cunliffe but I deplore the headline.

That is a vile way to discuss any aspect of human interaction.

Cunliffe is not responsible for Labour not getting above 31% over the past four years.

Cunliffe is not responsible for the drift of youth to the Greens.

Cunliffe is an excellent electorate MP, was an excellent minister and an excellent spokesperson.

The pressure in the Labour Party is from the members. That is why a third of the caucus withheld their votes in the confidence motion.

Anyone with two eyes could see that Goff and Shearer were not cutting through with the public and would not win an election.

I know what you mean. So why can't Cunliffe enlist any support?


Does anyone care?

You are right. The best way for Labour to unite is to give important role to Cunliffe. Unfortunately, in the current Labour it is not Shearer who is pulling the strings. He is just the puppet. His masters are behind the scene.
The main master thinks that one day New Zealand will be ready for a gay prime minister. Another is so angry and does not care about the party for Cunliffe undermining him (was that the real truth is another question) in the debate with Key. So they all make the ABC group.
So they brought in a stammering and stumbling idiot to lead the party. One cannot compare Shearer to Helen Clark. Shearer is more like Goff. Goofs a lot - The GCSB tape, the KiwiBuild policy. He will be undermined by his puppet masters so that people will be ready to accept him as the leader. The day Shearer breaks from their shackles is the day he will be the real leader and will be accepted as the real leader.
As for Solidarity, I am sure he just like his leader. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Labour cannot sideline Cunliffe and win New Lynn. They will split the votes and lose the seat to National or Greens. By the way, the voting is secret. There is no reason Cunliffe to say to whom he voted. We are assuming that he and his supporters did not vote for Shearer. Maybe he voted for him. Do you know the numbers to comment on this?
About votes I have a question. Parliament has 121 MPS. In the Speaker voting, Carter got 62 and Shearer's man got 52. Parliament is split almost in the middle 61-60. If it was to make a statement Shearer should have got at least 58 (leaving Mana and independent). But seven of his support MPs did not vote, abstained or were absent. What does it tell you about Labour leadership.

Some sentiment can be a bit vicious. It would be nice to think of a more proactive strategy and to calm things down a little. Here it's obvious that the intention is just to sow the seeds of discontent and to try and create rifts.
The notion that someone who is gainfully occupied is never content just makes a mockery of good intentions. Most people who enter politics are in it for more than just self-appeasement. Roles and personalities are the eternal raft. If the job of unity is sought then those portfolio identities here so thoroughly dismissed and implied as unable to do the job need to readjust and to settle.
There's a lot of talent and it would not help things to lose that. The same aspect of keeping some people close and others even closer is still going to apply here. It isn't easy to dismiss some people and the strategy to try will just backfire. It is better to work on personal relationships and be sensible about things.
Some people are all there for the long haul and know that it's a matter of time due to the importance of talent.
The last election was difficult to win but the next one won't be, and that will be why some people will see things differently. There was a lot of ability shown last time around in the administration prior to the current one and to lose heavyweights with experience would be ill-advised. There needs to be common sense on it all, rather than recklessness as sought out by this piece here.

What an awful headline.

The perceived threat from Cunliffe was - paradoxically - the best thing that ever happened to Shearer. He rose to the occasion and became a stronger, more decisive, more articulate leader. Until then the Labour Party was right to question if he had what it takes.

If he sidelines Cunliffe now he will look weak and/or threatened and - paradoxically - be more likely to have alternatives considered. Better to make Cunliffe a very busy team player!

David who?


Silent T

The question is not what does Shearer need to do to contain Cunliffe, but what does Cunliffe need to do to convince his colleagues of the perfectly evident truth that the future of Labour depends on his ascension to leadership.

This is why Mr Hooton is urging Shearer on. Because he knows that under Shearer, Labour look goofy. And that under Cunliffe, they'd cream it. And that Cunliffe, indeed, is National supporters' preferred Labour PM.

Such is Labour's distance from reality, that even National supporters understand them better than they understand themselves.

Matthew Hooton is right. It's time for Cunliffe to go. He has an extremely high opinion of himself that few others seem to share.

Wouldn't that be a reason for Matthew Hooton to go?

You have to be worried when Matthew Hooton is annointing Shearer.

It's actually a double-edged sword to which is what Hooten is pointing to.

Cunliffe is a true socialist - indeed, a poster "boy" for Labour. He's surly, snarly, angry, bitter and generally makes stuff up as he goes along ... particularly when ranting in a street. As a result, he is, or would be, a ticking time bomb of destruction for Labour.

Comparatively, Shearer is somewhat calmer. Sure, he's got no policy, as you never do with with the scurge of socialism. However, he's probably less destructive and more appealing to moderate NZ than Cunliffe.

The point being, Labour only stand a chance of changing its spots with Shearer and without the rot of Cunliffe. That said, National have changed their own spots and become the new Labour, where old Labour will always drift along as National pushes its socialist barrow and remains the most popular Labour-esque party ever.

I reckon Labour are still smarting that their ideal "poster boy" from an ideal background - eg, grew up in a state house, solo parent, state school educated, etc - actually happens to be the leader of their sworn enemy and is the huge roadblock to their socialist utopia.

It must still stick in their craw they can't parade him around as one of their own... And it must really bite them when John Key tells them it's about taking personal responsibility for their own outcomes. Because it surely isn't the job of a government. Unless you like North Korea, or similar.

Ironically poetic indeed.

Agree entirely. While Cunliffe drives his European car from his New Lynn electorate back to his Herne Bay home for a cuddle-wuddle with his millionaire wife he can only wonder how, with his own boarding school education in a castle in the UK, he has been checked by a poor boy who pulled himself up by the boot straps to excel beyond anything socialism has to offer.

He's thinking about income after 2014

Direct from the Joseph Stalin School of Political Ethics, this advice from Matthew Hooton:

"Murder the opponent most capable of defeating you."

Does Shearer have the ability to lead a unified and functional Labour government in the not unlikely event he is elected? It is difficult to fathom his real view, even if he is fairly right or more centre left. He looks very much just the mouthpiece of his speech writers and a puppet who in government would be controlled by Goff. Shearer's reactions appear knee jerk and uninformed politically. He supports reopening the hopelessly uneconomic Gisborne railways which has hardlly carried any traffic for 30 years but accepts the disappeance of NZ Post which as an enhanced courier service and vehicle for certain types of correspondence which might still be useful for daily delivery in five or six main centres.
The other problem with Matthew's arguments in that Cunliffe is immensely able and did an immense service in getting rid of the distasteful, ugly exploitive Theresa Gattung and her version of Telecom.
Publicly the objection of the Standard clique to Shearer is the get on the bike message to beneficiaries. I remain unconvinced about any over 30 long-term resident NZers on benefits in being forced to work in pointless, degrading work for the minimum wage that is problably damaging to the health and won't pay for happiness, leisure or pleasure. Upward social mobility through work seems an unlikely prospect in any advanced nation. The whole point of Reagan, Bush 2 and Aldous Huxley was to stop social mobility, which ceased to be desirable in any direction more than 100 years ago. Neo cons only got their chance because of the accident of WW2.

Your entire credibility crumbles like crushed flakey biscuits in a cup of tea when you mention Cunliffe being 'able' together with validating socialism when referring to NZ as an "advanced nation" - e.g., think about 'advanced' nation together with the antics of Waitangi Day. Also, check your notes: WW2 an accident?

New Zealand had many of the features of an advanced nation before Clark moved hard left after 2005. Social and economic advance requires turbulence, possibly even someone as hardline as US Attorney General Adele Palmer (I don't favour Collins). Cunliffe is obviously intelligent compared with Shearer - Cunliffe a diplomat, tech solver and brilliant student.

I actually agree with the first two sentences. Cunliffe probably is inwardly intelligent not so in social circles. But, I suggest, or put to you, that no matter what the circumstance, having people (all who are able) go out to work, no matter how degrading, gets things done. It creates opportunities for self-improvement as well as community improvement. It creates a system of advancement and better ideas. When you talk of turbulence, ideas, as a result of getting folk thinking, is the tonic of your turbulence. Otherwise, having a 'hand-out' / sit about / let someone else cough up mentality - is in fact the illness towards society created by such as Komrade Klark - which is the point you sort of make.

Shearer is looking after the old guard in Labour ,Goff, King and Mallard. The members don't want them but the dumb ones who know time is up who remain namelsess are being promoted by Shearer. I am a traditional Labour supporter but not in 2014. Shearer is nothing more than joke.

Labour must move to the left and must take middle NZ with them. Cunliffe is the natural and obvious choice and why he wasn't elected leader of the Labour party years ago is bewildering.
Cunliffe frightens the 'shareholder i/investor class' which is why those with vested interests are so vehement in their dismissal of him. However, he has earned grudging respect in the business community because he communicates well and - like most left leaning economic thinkers - he just makes sense.

it'll be tricky for labour to move to the left as National appear to have cobbled everyone by doing so themselves.