In February of next year the Labour Party caucus is constitutionally obliged to conduct a secret leadership ballot. The key word in this simple statement of fact is “secret”. No caucus member will be required to say who he or she voted for. None, that is, except David Cunliffe. Talk of Cunliffe’s demotion or exclusion from Labour’s shadow cabinet and, beyond that, of his possible expulsion from the parliamentary Labour Party, revolves largely around the issue of his refusal to say whether he will support David Shearer in that February ballot. Cunliffe is being asked to say how he will vote in a secret leadership ballot three months from now. His failure to do so is being taken as evidence of his disloyalty to Shearer and possible grounds for his expulsion from the Labour caucus. This is not merely entirely unreasonable, it is a major breach of Labour’s own constitutional rules. A caucus member is being asked to declare in advance how he will vote in a secret ballot.
This fact seems to have escaped the country’s political journalists who could see nothing wrong in demanding that Cunliffe tell them who he intended to vote for in a secret ballot three months from now. Leaving aside the constitutional absurdity of the question, it seemed to escape their notice that Cunliffe does not have a crystal ball to tell him what the state of the parties will be in, how well Shearer will be faring in the Preferred Prime Minister polls or anything at all about the political landscape against which the ballot will be conducted. I have no crystal ball either, but it’s clear to me that if Shearer’s and Labour’s poll ratings were dire next February there would be adequate grounds for even the most loyal caucus member to consider whether Shearer ought not to be replaced as leader. While they were demanding transparency and openness from Cunliffe, some members of the fourth estate had no such requirement of Cunliffe’s detractors.
In an interview with Rachel Smalley on this morning’s Firstline, Patrick Gower thought it acceptable journalism to repeat for the amusement of viewers the tirade of abuse which an unnamed front-bench Labour MP had heaped on Cunliffe’s head. Refusing to say how you are going to vote in a secret ballot three months from now is, it seems, unacceptable conduct in an MP; not having the guts to put your name to your opinions apparently isn’t. As for Shearer, his Conference speech on Sunday was clearly brilliant. He has looked and sounded better in interviews than I have seen him to date. He is no doubt feeling supported and confident. But in considering Cunliffe’s fate he would be wise to consider Helen Clark’s approach to dealing with the malcontents who invited her to step down as leader in mid-1996. Three years later they were all senior ministers in her cabinet; one of them, Michael Cullen, was deputy Prime Minister.
As Lyndon Johnston observed, ‘Better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.’ Shearer cannot rely on everything being rosy in Labour’s garden in February; and his position has been weakened by the constitutional changes which the party has just made to how leadership spills are conducted. He may feel he has no alternative but to demote Cunliffe, but he ought to think very carefully about the extent of that demotion. Cunliffe is Labour’s most effective spokesman and debater. No-one comes within cooee of him, least of all on economic policy. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater may satisfy the ABC brigade, but it may not be a sensible long-term strategy. And then there’s the final solution – expelling this turbulent priest from caucus. That would no doubt please Patrick Gower’s gutless informant. But it would please John Key more. The Labour Party would split in two. A National victory in would be all but inevitable.