Labour’s Political Management

Jane Clifton writes in the Listener:

Like a dozen plotters before him, David Cunliffe 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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