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Shearer/Cunliffe showdown: How Grant Robertson wins

Labour leader David Shearer goes into his caucus showdown today needing to make a clean kill.

The trouble is, he can't.

The tyro Labour leader, who has been in the job less than a year and in Parliament only slightly more than three years, needs to lance the festering boil of discontent around New Lynn MP David Cunliffe and Mr Cunliffe's apparently dwindling band of supporters.

The alternative to a clean kill is months of destabilisation in which both men and their respective supporters reduce each other to the political equivalent of roadkill.

If this happens, watch for deputy leader Grant Robertson to step carefully over the corpses and take over the leadership by autumn 2013.

Mr Shearer’s problem is he cannot make a clean kill without alienating the wider party. The constitutional changes made at the party conference over the weekend give members and the unions more power over  caucus.

They are an expression of Labour rank-and-file dissatisfaction with their caucus: with the group of MPs who have been in Parliament too long and also – note this for future developments – because they want a more left-wing government than Helen Clark’s 1999-2008 administration.

Mr Cunliffe has been a vehicle for that dissatisfaction from the Labour Party at large. But commentators who wrote up the constitutional changes as an expression of the wider party’s desire for his leadership got it the wrong way round.

Rather, the push behind Mr Cunliffe is an expression of many Labour members' – who are far more left-wing than their MPs – desire for a more radical government.

One of the many ironies of this is they are using him even more than he is using them.

But too strong a strike at Mr Cunliffe and his supporters – Waikato-based MPs Nanaia Mahuta and Sue Moroney have been specifically named – will be seen as a two-fingered salute by Mr Shearer to the party at large.

That would put the noose around his own neck come February, when those constitutional changes take effect.

But too weak a strike and he looks like a wuss.

So it will be summer of simmering unrest and plotting around the barbecues. There will be more public explosions from MPs on both sides of the grouping.

And by late summer, look for Mr Robertson to sigh wearily and to come forward – for the good of the party, of course – and shoulder the burden of cleaning up the mess.

Mr Robertson is a former Helen Clark staffer and is from the party's gay/bi friendly Rainbow faction. Were it up to caucus he would probably be complemented by electing someone to the deputy role who at least looks the part of a "red-blooded male". 

Waimakariri MP Clayton Cosgrove would fit the bill well – and he is a more effective opposition MP than at least four-fifths of the Labour caucus – but is not widely popular. 

In any case, whether that will happen as the party organisation takes greater control from February next year is a very open question.

With a determined push from Labour members at the conference in more left-wing directions – remits to curtail private education and to give local councils greater powers were passed, for example, and there is a strong push for a much more interventionist economic policy – the party at large is likely to see any such move as pandering to rednecks. 

In short, whatever the outcome of today's stoush, the political scene has only witnessed the start of Labour's latest war of the succession. 


More by Rob Hosking

Comments and questions

Not sure your choice of words (implying that Robertson is not a red blooded male) will go down that well. I'd put that statement on the same shelf with Key's 'red shirt' jibe.

And so perhaps a gay future Prime Minister waits in the wings? But would that be a first for NZ?

Has anyone in the msm asked the Greens for their thoughts on Labour's unhappy and dysfunctional caucus and what this will mean for them and their coalition partner in government? Surely they must have some thoughts on the matter by now? And Winston too. They've all being so strangely quiet, which is so unlike them.............

What a load of rubbish may they continue with there there divisions they have no one capable of running this country theres not a real leader amongst them,they should refer to the dictionary for the definition of a "Leader"thank God they havent or it really would be the last person turns the lights out.

While the internal fighting continues voters sit by watching and think are these guys worthy of running and representing us on an international stage... i'll leave the labour supporters to ponder that ....

Grant Robertson ... don't over value your pink dollar buddy (you don;t need reminding this is an old school country with an aging population)