Labour’s Political Management

November 22nd, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Jane Clifton writes in the Listener:

Like a dozen plotters before him, has today paid the price for believing, against all historical precedent, that he could mime his disloyalty, and not get into trouble because he didn’t actually utter the naughty words out loud.

For all that his supporters, inside and outside the caucus, are insisting that he did nothing wrong, he really and truly did the coupster’s equivalent of waving his knickers at disembarking sailors. He followed several of the bog-standard, by-the-numbers steps taught in Coups 101, to the point that he might have studied at the knee of Maurice Williamson, Brian Connell or Richard Prebble.

1. You make speeches with tacit but heavily coded inferences that if they made you the leader, you would introduce kick-butt policies that the incumbent is too gutless/politically unsound/incompetent to contemplate – carefully omitting specifics.

2. You tickle up edginess among the many anxious party supporters who are panicking at what they perceive is a lack of progress in the party’s profile and poll fortunes.

3. You agree to a live TV interview on the morning of the party’s annual conference debate about the rules for electing the leader at which you conspicuously avoid expressing support for the leader.

Jane is right that DC did play a bit too cute at times with his speeches and his failure to appear more supportive of Shearer. However as Jane notes, this demotion is different to other ones:

It was easy enough for past perpetrators of disloyalty like Chris Carter, Brian Connell and Maurice Williamson to be dogboxed. At the time of their treacherous outings, they weren’t particularly valuable contributors to the big picture – or even useful low-profile Cinderellas. But the backbenching of Cunliffe is a massive loss for Labour. …

Of course, the uncomfortable corollary to Shearer’s no-brainer decision to dogbox Cunliffe is that the wider party is by no means of the same mind as the caucus. The flavour of decision-making at the weekend’s conference made this very clear. This remains both a risk for Shearer and an opportunity for Cunliffe. A lot of the party activists have bought the line that Cunliffe is the party’s criminally unrecognised saviour, and what they will doubtless see as his crucifixion today will intensify Cunliffe’s support base.

I’ve been thinking about how this all came to unfold. The catalyst was Cunliffe’s lines at the Labour Party conference, and this got me thinking.

Why in God’s name hadn’t all Labour Party MPs been given clear talking points about what to say regarding the leadership, for the conference?

I mean, the main focus of the conference was about the rules for electing the leader.  Did no one think that a journalist or two might ask some questions about where MPs stand on the leadership? Did the fact several bloggers and commentators on the left called for Shearer to go not ring a bell in the Labour Leader’s office that maybe some journalists will ask questions?

It is an absolute failure of political management that someone very senior didn’t make sure that all Labour MPs had very clear instructions on what to say if the media ask them how they will vote in February. And most of all, an absolute failure that someone had not sat down with David Cunliffe and negotiated acceptable wording for him. Cunliffe may have been ambitious, but if some lines had been negotiated in advance I believe he would have kept to them. MPs know a failure to stick to an agreed position is political death.

Some may say that is being wise with hindsight. That’s nonsense. I’ve been a parliamentary staffer through several coups. I’ve seen press secretaries spend hours negotiating exact wording of positions with MPs so they can keep their future options open (No aspiring leader ever wants to give a Shermanesque denial that they will never ever stand for the leadership) but minimise any speculation that they are seeking it now. I saw this negotiated with Bill English when Jenny Shipley was leader. I also saw (more from a distance) the negotiations when Don Brash resigned involving Key, English and Brownlee. By being pro-active on it, it meant that leadership changes were relatively orderly.

Even the stupidest political staffer should have worked out that it would be a good idea to negotiate exact talking points with David Cunliffe (in fact the entire Labour caucus) before the conference. And even if the Chief of Staff somehow overlooks this most basic step, then surely the Deputy Leader (who used to be H3) or the Chief Whip (also an experienced former staffer) should have thought of this.

All they had to do was give to caucus a set of acceptable lines to be used in case people asked about the February vote. If they had, then this sacking may not have happened.

So it begs the question. Was the failure to do so incompetence or deliberate?

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26 Responses to “Labour’s Political Management”

  1. Nostalgia-NZ (4,697 comments) says:

    It was impatience and over-excitement, fuelled by blogs, media and speculation. DC didn’t play a tight game, got mesmerised at the prospect of being leader sooner rather than later. It also appears he gave Shearer some undertaking which he clearly broke. He thought he was marching firmly within the ranks of his support and overplayed his hand. Shows he is not leader material and whatever the fantasies about February might be, a cool head would probably arrive at the point that DC isn’t cut from the right cloth. His own idiotic support were his worse enemies.

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  2. Kevin (1,122 comments) says:

    None of this really matters because labours loss is greens gain and after 2014 the only thing stopping them caning our arses for voting national will be NZ First?

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  3. mikenmild (8,890 comments) says:

    Oh yes, a complete disaster when compared to all National Party leadership changes, or attempted changes, ever. Or maybe not.

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  4. bhudson (4,720 comments) says:

    And isn’t the Chief of Staff also a friend and supporter of the Deputy Leader? And neither of them prepared a position for MPs to avoid speculation and deflect the media?

    If it was deliberate I have to say it is looking very clumsy from Robertson. He has himself too associated to Shearer’s performance now – low party profile, no strategy, no traction, no headway in public support. He cannot distance himself from the performance of Labour under Shearer’s (and his) leadership.

    That probably won’t hurt him too much with caucus, given the divisions there. It probably won’t hurt him with the Labour Council. But it likey will have an impact within the general party membership come postal vote time. And it will very likely stick with the general public and their votes.

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  5. mikenmild (8,890 comments) says:

    Do you really think many voters will care about how Labour managed its leadership problems now when they go to the polling station in November 2014?

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  6. m@tt (535 comments) says:

    “It is an absolute failure of political management that someone very senior didn’t make sure that all Labour MPs had very clear instructions on what to say if the media ask them how they will vote in February.”
    What a sad reality. I’d rather we elected the best MP’s for the job than the MP’s that happen to belong to the party that plays the best politics.

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  7. tvb (3,945 comments) says:

    Yes but. Maybe Cunliffe WANTED to be sacked so that his hand is free to actively campaign for the February vote. As a shadow Minister he will have been constrained to mount a challenge. Leadership challenges are always difficult and messy at times. I don’t think your advice works that well where there is an opposed challenge to a sitting leader.

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  8. Pete George (21,826 comments) says:

    Was the failure to do so incompetence or deliberate?

    I’d go for deliberate incompetence.

    mikenmild – yes. This is a major clusterfuck for Labour that has to be considered in 2014. And don’t forget, it’s far from over, it’s guaranteed to be a significant issue for months yet. And what then? Whoever ends up leader has a drastically divided and angry caucus and a fracturing party to try and opatch up. How long do you think that will take, if it’s possible?

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  9. Mobile Michael (367 comments) says:

    These are the same holes that Brash fell in, he got asked a direct question about the Brethern leaflets and didn’t have a prepared answer. From that point on he was doomed, no matter how well he did in the 2005 election. Same with Shearer, having not had a long political apprenticeship he shouldn’t be out talking to the media without prepated lines and some more coavhing.

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  10. Pete George (21,826 comments) says:

    mickysavage 1
    22 November 2012 at 6:06 am

    Kia Ora te Whanau and Mike Smith.

    Statement by the New Lynn Labour Electorate Committee
    November 21, 2012
    The New Lynn Electorate Committee of the Labour Party, at a special meeting called today, voted unanimously to express its full confidence in its Member of Parliament David Cunliffe. While acknowledging that this decision was within the prerogative of the party leader, the LEC noted David’s demotion with regret.
    The LEC also resolved to raise with the New Zealand Council of the Labour Party concerns about recent public statements made by Labour’s Senior Whip, and the leaking of confidential caucus information by unnamed MPs following Tuesday’s emergency caucus meeting.
    As these processes are now internal party matters we do not intend making further comment.
    ENDS
    http://thestandard.org.nz/open-mike-22112012/comment-page-1/#comment-552681

    I covered the leaking from the caucus meeting: http://yournz.org/2012/11/21/something-still-rotten-in-labour-caucus/

    That was also deliberate incompetence.

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  11. mikenmild (8,890 comments) says:

    Any leadership ructions over at United-whateveritscurrentnameis Pete?

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  12. graham (2,211 comments) says:

    mikenmild – Depends how they handle it, and whether National bring it up closer to the time. But I understand your point, NZ’ers generally have very short memories when it comes to politics. Whatever happens over the next few months, as long as this all dies down six months before the election the vast majority of NZ’ers won’t care (or remember).

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  13. Pete George (21,826 comments) says:

    mikenmild – not that I’m aware of. And I categorically rule out any personal ambitions there. See, it’s easy to do that.

    Saying this won’t be remembered in 2014 is like saying the sinking of the Titanic won’t be remembered in 1914.

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  14. bhudson (4,720 comments) says:

    Do you really think many voters will care about how Labour managed its leadership problems now when they go to the polling station in November 2014?

    Yes, mikey. And your comments throughout this brief thread would seem to indicate quite clearly that the prospect worries you.

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  15. barry (1,317 comments) says:

    DPF – I think you got his initials wrong. Its DC

    Many of his followers think his initals are JC, or line with modern movie making – JC2……….

    Mikenmild – you are right – thats if no one raises the subject. But Ill tell you what. If I were National Id be asking the question at least once a week in parliament. “Could the Member for (where ever Shearer is MP for) advise the house who the current leader of the parliamentary labout party is, and if he doesnt know could he advise the house who the union faction would like as leader?” etc, etc.

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  16. graham (2,211 comments) says:

    bhudson – do you really think so? My experience is that the two major political parties can make major balls-ups for two and a half years, then as long as they look good for six months most voters will simply forget the history. Remember, the vast majority of NZ’ers are not nearly as interested in politics as people who comment on this thread are.

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  17. Reid (15,593 comments) says:

    I’d go for deliberate incompetence.

    Who did it deliberately Pete, that’s the question. I mean did Shearer himself do it deliberately? Did his staff who should have told him? Who was it that should have told him but didn’t? And does this mean that everyone in Shearer’s camp who should have told him but didn’t, secretly wants to ditch him?

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  18. Danny-boy (102 comments) says:

    I think the problem within Labour is that those who are nominally “very senior” (Shearer, Robertson, Cameron, etc.) have no credibility with the old guard (Cunliffe, King, Goff, Mallard, etc.) all of whom have been Ministers in one or more governments. Mallard in particular is utterly unmanageable. I can’t imagine he would take advice from any staffer or newbie MP.

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  19. BeaB (1,958 comments) says:

    Lots of fun yet to come.

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  20. bhudson (4,720 comments) says:

    graham,

    No one is going to let them forget about it :-)

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  21. graham (2,211 comments) says:

    bhudson, problem is who will remind the great unwashed? The MSM?

    We get the printed version of the Herald at work, want to guess how far through I had to go before I found any mention of it?

    Page 24.

    And this is less than 48 hours after it all came to a head. I can’t see the MSM picking this up in 6 months. It *might* feature in some of the analysis close to the 2014 election, but I suspect the majority of NZers will give it little thought.

    I could well be wrong, time will tell.

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  22. Rex Widerstrom (5,129 comments) says:

    graham says:

    My experience is that the two major political parties can make major balls-ups for two and a half years, then as long as they look good for six months most voters will simply forget the history.

    Dead right. And as they stand in the polling booth doing a quick mental recap of those last six months, the question in the minds of the great majority, who aren’t party activitists, will be “Who’ll put the most cash in my pocket?”. Never mind whether that windfall is sustainable, or derived at the expense of other people to such an extent that the already deep divisions in NZ will widen… self-interest will prevail.

    Of course it has always been so to a degree, but over the past couple of decades (at least) the importance given to the answer to that quiestion has come to eclipse all other concerns.

    We do get the government we deserve, alas.

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  23. Camryn (549 comments) says:

    I reckon the public does react to this type of thing, if only subliminally. When the shoe was on the other foot I recall any number of people commenting along the lines of liking National policies but feeling that if they couldn’t organize their party then they couldn’t trust them to run the country.

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  24. Pete George (21,826 comments) says:

    Labour’s political management has allowed this to happen (summarised from Duncan Garner’s blog):

    Dissent. Uprisings. Rebellion. Scraps. Blood.

    It was something Helen Clark kept a careful lid on.

    Not even on her weakest day or in a moment of madness would Clark have given up control of who picks the leader of the proud Labour Party – never, ever.

    What happened last Saturday would never have happened under Clark’s strong leadership. Now the Labour leader can get rolled and rolled easily.

    If a minority of 13 other MPs out of 34 decide to support Grant Robertson or David Cunliffe next February, then that triggers a party wide vote.

    During that vote, party members get a 40 percent say and unions get a 20 percent say. You reckon they’ll hang on to David Shearer in that scenario? Doubt it. And it’s like that every three years.

    The February following each election, Labour will be able to boot out their sitting leader – that leader may have just months earlier been crowned Prime Minister.

    It’s a recipe for instability. Quite frankly it’s a disaster, a train-wreck waiting to happen.

    If the 40 percent caucus vote and 40 percent party member vote cancels each other out – i.e the caucus wants a change but the party members don’t, then guess who has the casting vote?

    The unions. They get 20 percent.

    Could the unions select the next Prime Minister? Yes. Could they dump a sitting Prime Minister just two or three months after they took office?Yes.

    It’s democracy at its best and worst. It’s great for members – they feel part of the process again.

    But it’s also bloody mad: a minority of grumpy MPs can trigger a destabilising public coup or primary.

    It will be ugly. And it’s exactly what Labour members voted for. No wonder some MPs spoke out strongly against it.

    http://www.3news.co.nz/Opinion-Labour-be-careful-what-you-wish-for/tabid/1135/articleID/277732/Default.aspx#ixzz2CvAyyTBz

    Remarkable that it’s been allowed to happen, too busy infighting to notice?

    Tick, tick….

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  25. Bill (83 comments) says:

    The Problems in Labour are not terminal.

    Annette, Phil and Mallard are interfering to the extent that the rest are not sorting out their relationships.

    The three of them will be out at the end of this parliament. The rest will sort out their differences.

    Cunliffe and the other senior players will shape into a tough competent team once the old interferes get out of the mix.

    Do to his newness Shearer had given them too much air time. That will stop in February.
    (Mike Smith is also a destabilising influence)

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  26. mikenmild (8,890 comments) says:

    They don’t seem to me to be in much more of a shambles than the National Party of ca 2003, Labour ca 1994 or National ca 1985.

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