Morbid Symptoms: Can Labour Be Born Anew?



THE CHAIRS in the final meeting venue have been stacked away. All that expensive signage, commissioned for the benefit of the television cameras, no longer has a purpose. For the second time in just 14 months, Labour’s Leadership Contest is all over bar the voting.

The contrast between the road-show just concluded and what was, effectively, the David Cunliffe Coronation Tour of 2013 could hardly be starker. Then, it was the rank-and-files’ and the affiliates’ moment to deliver a very emphatic one-fingered message to a caucus it had grown to despise – and they delivered it with both hands. This time, it’s been the Labour Caucus’s Victory Tour.

In both 2012 and 2013, Labour’s MPs had warned the party’s members and affiliates that Cunliffe was unacceptable – but they refused to listen. Now they know what happens when a leader lacks the fulsome support of his caucus colleagues. No one’s saying it out loud, but the most important single feature of this year’s leadership contest is David Cunliffe’s absence. No matter which of the four grey eminences emerges from the complicated processes of preferential voting as Labour’s new leader – Caucus has won.

Had Cunliffe’s name been on the ballot paper, he would, almost certainly, have triumphed again. I don’t think it’s stretching the truth to say that among Labour’s staunchest supporters – Maori and Pasifika – the Member for New Lynn is loved. When informed that their champion had withdrawn from the race, a hall packed with Maori and Pasifika trade union delegates audibly groaned and tears flowed. Only when told that Nanaia Mahuta had entered the fray did their spirits noisily recover.

But, no matter how strong the loyalty shown to Cunliffe by the true believers who give Labour two ticks, it was made abundantly clear to the party membership just how ugly things would get if he insisted, once again, on soliciting their support.

The embittered David Shearer may have led the charge, but every political journalist in the country knew that his acidic tongue was just the poisoned point of a much larger spear. Shearer’s mission was to demonstrate to the rank-and-file and affiliates that the longer Cunliffe persisted in his fantasy of continuing to lead the party the worse things would get. They had to know that Caucus was perfectly willing to destroy the Labour Party in order to save it.

Rather than unleash a no-holds-barred civil war at every level of his Party; one from which it would likely not recover; Cunliffe bowed to the inevitable and withdrew from the contest.

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From that point on, the outcome of the 2014 Leadership Contest ceased to matter very much.

The four candidates are all committed to a slow, bureaucratically-driven process of ideologically insipid rebuilding and repair. The party membership should certainly not put any stock in the candidates’ rhetorical commitment to respect the achievements of the 2011-2013 democratisation process. Given the exemplary fate of the man the members chose to be their leader, it is already abundantly clear just how far Democracy’s writ now runs in the Labour Party. The candidates’ solemn promises to respect members’ decisions lack any purchase in political reality.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the entire 2014 Leadership Contest is not the deposition of the members’ choice for leader, but of David Cunliffe’s signal failure to meet the expectations he himself had done so much to raise. When the moment came to take control of New Zealand’s oldest political party and make it fit for purpose in the Twenty-First century, the man who’d painted himself in the brightest colours of rejuvenation and renewal, proved to be as clueless as the proverbial dog who caught the car.

Cunliffe, alone among his colleagues, had possessed the necessary combination of wit and ambition to understand that Neoliberalism has, in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis become a zombie ideology. What he did not possess, however, was the temperament (or, as Herald columnist, Fran O’Sullivan, might put it, the cajones) to usher either his party – or the wider electorate – to the logical conclusions of his own analysis. Truth to tell, when it came right down to it, Cunliffe just wasn’t up to describing, even to himself, exactly what a post-Neoliberal New Zealand would look like.

In this respect, the Herald’s series of photographs showing Cunliffe, abandoned and alone, sketching aimlessly in the sand on the beach below his Herne Bay home, provided a sad but fitting symbol for the whole historical dilemma currently immobilising contemporary social-democracy.

The Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, observed, in his Prison Notebooks, that: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

In November 2014, these “morbid symptoms” even have names.

  • Grant Robertson: the consummate insider, who seems, at times, to have forgotten what the outside looks like.
  • David Parker: the frustrated entrepreneur, who shows every sign of wanting to substitute New Zealand’s whole fragile economy for the little businesses he very nearly went broke setting-up in Dunedin.
  • Nanaia Mahuta: the Maori princess, who has made a much better than expected fist of proving to her Pakeha colleagues that it’s whakapapa that counts.
  • Andrew Little: (Cunliffe’s choice) who rescued the Engineers Union from civil war and might, just, be able to repeat the miracle for Labour.

Which of these “symptoms” is more likely to contribute to the demise, or recovery, of the Labour Party is now the historic duty of its membership to determine. For the country’s sake, as well as their own, we must hope they make the right choice.


  1. Who cares Chris? Labour is dying, is dead, deserves nothing but contempt from every working person left in this grotty little country. An Anderton revival is required. Maori and Pasifika people need to walk away . The left is thoroughly fragmented. Only Mahuta has any of the required charisma and ability to reunite Labour and she will not win sadly. Whichever dull grey middle class pakeha male takes the helm will preside over Labour’s last stand.

    • Labour has been down before and has come back under Norm Kirk, David Lange and Helen Clark. I will never forget the night before election day 1972 when a drunk weaved his way up Lambton Quay and stopping people saying; “Its Time, Mate. It’s time.” The next day Labour won in a land slide under FFP. Remember it was Norm’s third election as leader. In terms of leadership Labour has to be far more patient. Shearer didn’t see an election as leader and Cunnliffe didn’t get his feet under the table long enough. Like instant coffee we expect instant results. There’s nothing wrong with Labour that cool heads and some wisdom and vision can’t put right. It’s pointless creating more wealth if it’s not shared fairly. I think the current leadership process is worthwhile as long as it’s not ego driven, at the expense of policy. Ka nui enei whakaaro.

  2. HI Chris,

    Yes I was gutted when Cunliffe stood down from the leadership race. But it was not only Shearer who was throwing about the poison spear. David Parker stabbed DC in the backwith his “no confidence”comment, which had no point, other than to destroy Cunliffe’s chances. GR has beenunderming DC and his comment one week after the election “I could have won”, destroyed any chance of him getting my vote. If anyone doubts that DC caucus weren’t behind him read the Claire Trevitt interview with NM. NM strikes me as someone who is not capable of lying. I believe her.

    From the get go the media, including the likes of Hooton, were out to get Cunliffe. It was unrelenting and I have never seen the vilification of a NZ politician to the extent it happened to Cunliffe. I have to say Chris you were part of this too with your articles such as “what the hell is wrong with Cunliffe”. Cunliffe was a highly competent minister and would have made a highly competent PM. I am hopeful that Mr Cunliffe is having a happy life with his family. He deserves so much more than what he got from some of his colleagues and the NZ media.

    • Totally and utterly agree with you Anker.
      We keep hearing all the negative comments about David Cunliffe from both the media and caucus, but nobody has come up with a single concrete example as to why he is so vilified
      We get innuendo , cynicism , schoolboy tattle tale whispers and rumours, but nothing concrete. I heard Hooton refer to him as Cun*life on Radio Live once on the blokes show, with that traitor to his own people, Willie Jackson.
      That is plain straight out gutless talk and no reason given.
      I have asked a couple of people who have a lot of inside knowledge, as to why the ABCERS started up and they said, simply put, professional jealousy.

      So come on Chris . Youre in the know. God only knows you’ve talked about the vilification of David Cunliffe often enough. Shed some light .
      Or better still , let’s get all the gutless wonders in a room. You know the ones , Gower, Hooton , Henry, Hosking, Garner, Dann, Armstrong etc, etc you know them all plus the ABCers, and they can all share their anti Cunliffe stories with the rest of NZ, because I believe we all deserve a proper explanation as to why potentially one the best was treated in such an appalling way!

      • And Grant I agree with you too!

        Its a relief to know others see things this way, as cause those who were following carefully and using their brain, just accepted the msm spin.

        Sad that DC may never be PM. I wish his and his family good health and happiness and I apologise to them that they had to put up with the crap they experienced.

  3. Further immolation of the past leader is indeed un-charitable, here. Especially without recognising the courage and conviction it took David Cunliffe to stand up to the enormous role played by a vitriolic, right-wing press in attempting to erode his character. If any one of the candidates can measure up to the strength he displayed in the face of caustic attacks from within (one of whom is now a nominee, and the other a turncoat) and without, I will support them in this endeavour.

  4. Inward thinking is Labour’s problem and has been for a long while, with each passing year seeing them become even more out of touch. Regardless of who it is the challenge is the same … having a realistic vision of what post neo-liberal New Zealand will look like and selling it, not just to a caucus or even the members … but to the ‘outside’ voting public. If the new Leader can do that in two years, then and only then will they be the right choice. The luxury of long term party building is illusory. This is what the Rubicon looks like just before you get wet.

  5. A simple formula on which to re-build Labour.

    Imagine that this recent election had been a John Key v David Lange race.
    Go from there.

  6. caucus long since destroyed what used to be the Labour party, any semblance of the Labour party went west in 84 and has never returned, any uprising by members is always countered by MPs looking after number one come election time to make sure the membership is kept in its place.

  7. Remember “The Power of One”?
    There is also the weakness of one. An individual journalist may overlook a key question during an interview, there is no one else there to ask it. A CEO may ignore the need to diversify and so condemn his company to oblivion. And you just get the one leader. I agree, Chris, that David Cunliffe was a bit of a weak reed when the chips were down, although my impression is that few on the Left had a clear idea of the core difference between the Left and what was laughably described as Labour-Lite. I believe his instincts to try to please everyone, good in themselves, perhaps, unfortunately led him to simply sound equivocal and vacillating. Hardly a recipe for a clarion cry. (David Shearer may also have supped from the same cup: he suffered the same symptoms).

    Perhaps we all need to think a little more deeply about that. It is too easy to simply declare that they are all idiots on the Right and that the answers are so obvious even a school child could see them. Someone get me a kid – quick!

    Perhaps there are endless, or at least several people with the credentials you describe out there, Chris. Just none of them has stepped forward. While we wait for a David Lange to headhunt, (anyone want to approach Findlay MacDonald?), we will make do with the crew we have before us. The winner will wield exactly the strength we concede to him or her. So those of you who would rather bemoan the lack of an Arthur Scargill on these particular hustings might consider taking to the back of the bus for this one or even gracefully withdraw. A self-serving “purity of purpose” will end up killing us all – at the expense of those we pretend we would like to aid.

  8. Cunliffe was a good man who failed.

    My union, (the RMTU), in a triumph of pragmatism is backing Robertson as the only man who can win sufficient votes away from Key.

    The Labour Party is a weapon that has crumbled in the hands of the Unions. But what else is there?

    • My union, (the RMTU), in a triumph of pragmatism is backing Robertson as the only man who can win sufficient votes away from Key.

      No it’s not. It endorsed Little. And so it should. If a union doesn’t back one of it’s own to lead the party it it needs to ask itself why it’s affiliated and where its class loyalties really lie.

  9. Hi,

    Did no one just see the thirty second if that item on three news this evening. All about how John Key had the documents about the cable intercept program declassified a year or more ago, and waited until the KDC moment of stupid to release them?

    It’s not leadership that Labour is lacking. It’s basic smarts. KDC got played. The election was dead in the water a year before it was held. And you wonder why John Key smiled the whole way through?!

    Forget the leaders. Labour, the greens and everyone else need some damned politically savy strategists.

    Cheers, Greg.

  10. What dear Mr Chris Trotter does so often, is NOT naming one elephant in the room, the MSM, aka mainstream media. He does that on purpose it seems, so as to not offend the ones that so often invite him onto the microphone in radio shows, or on screen on the old television.

    Let us NEVER forget, how for months, so many in the MSM, worked tirelessly, to find anything wrong with David Cunliffe, and to then undermine his leadership of Labour, to constantly challenge him with questions that they would never bother asking the so “worshipped” John Key. The MSM first also favoured David Shearer for too long, and only dropped support for him, once it was beyond doubt, that no “media training” would ever get him to be able to string more than two coherent sentences together.

    The MSM has for years, since the love affair with John Key and his newly rebranded “National Party” started, with the state home boy to fame and success fairly tale, been doing all to ridicule and write off Labour. Cunliffe was only the last head they helped to roll. It was the audacity I noticed during the election campaign, where so many in the now rather neoliberal, “fashionable”, in some cases perhaps “libertarian” media, went as far as stating who should “really” be Labour’s leader, what policy Labour should “really” be having, and what was appealing and what not, to the wider voting public.

    After decades of neoliberal conditioning, the preaching of fending for yourself, the individualised lifestyle, endless consumerist brainwashing, and career driven work environments, people have become cynical and selfish. They judge politicians and parties on the basis “what’s in it for me”, and the media knows this, as they have assisted the business sector to shape public sentiment.

    So it is very easy these days for the MSM to frame the political landscape, the events, the politicians and their actions and words, to pick things out of context, to repeat negative bits of news endlessly, to even determine outcomes of elections.

    The majority of the sheeples do not quite realise all this, and take all this for real, and get in behind the bullies, like the National leadership, and kick down who is down. That is the psyche that exists in New Zealand now, and Labour are down, the candidates are perceived as not being quite up to it already, and the MSM will definitely beat into the next elected leader, make no doubt.

    Under this reality, Labour is lost, has no chance for revival, and reformation, or what you call it. The framing is now, that “activists” seize hold of the membership and party, put Cunliffe into place, and they lost, because they shifted Labour to the supposed “far left”, and that was not what voters wanted, so Labour lost. Even the new candidates have suckered up to this nonsense, it seems, and now talk of the “centre” and being there for “all NZers”, while we know, they will likely move back to the right.

    Sorry, I see little hope, I wish there was. But at least, dear Chris, name that elephant in the room, and get real, and distance yourself from those socialites that rather cheer on Key, but also like to “entertain” you, to pretend they are “balanced”.

    • The MSM…

      With fabicated “stories” such as the Donghuia Liu Affair, it was pretty obvious that if the media couldn’t dig up the dirt of Cunliffe, well, then, they’d just have to print any old sh*t given to them.

      The Herald’s entrapment of Cunliffe, in connivance with right-wing bloggers and Minister Woodhouse’s office, was perhaps the most sinister abuse of media-political power I’ve ever seen.

      Perhaps this sort of thing has gone on before, but has been so cunningly executed that I never noticed.

      But the Donghua Liu Affair was overt and there was nothing subtle about it.

      Perhaps the most tragic thing is that the Herald got away with it and the public (generally) did not realise they were being played.

      One of the consequences is that any Labour leader will have learnt a very salient lesson; don’t mess with the Established Order or your career will be destroyed as was David Cunliffe.

      • Frank, it may be unfair to ask you, but have you thought of re-submitting your complaint re Dong Liu letter to the Press Council again. From memory they justified no upholding your complaint in part because the Herald said there was more to come. And what a surprize, nothing more came! Just a thought.

  11. “Clueless as the proverbial dog who caught the car”.
    I don’t think so , but what I did observe were ‘commentators’ supposedly speaking for ‘The Left’ acting like possums caught in the headlights every time they were asked a question that may have required criticism of John Key.
    First came the nervous laugh , then the fudging and finally the ‘money shot’ for the media, when the answer was somehow turned on it’s ear, with a negative comment about David Cunliffe.
    We had Mike and I agree with Mathew, Williams.
    Josie and I agree with Michelle, Pagani.
    Oh, and Chris and I agree with Rodney, Trotter.
    If you want to talk about showing some cajones, David Cunliffe showed plenty.
    In fact , i would wager money that there is no other MP around at the moment who could have handled all the corrupt crap that came his way, from all quarters, and yet still managed to stay dignified.
    If a few other supposed ‘supporters’ had showed real cajones at crucial times, the whole narrative that was being peddled, could have been reset and then who knows where that could have taken things !
    Clearly they didn’t believe strongly enough about wanting a higher minimum wage , help for new parents, affordable houses for the next generations, a fairer tax system, the hunger of 200,000 children, and a better education for all children. David Cunliffe passionately talked about these issues at every opportunity.
    Others, when they had their chance , whimped out !

  12. It’s jonky’s indefatigable confidence and arrogance that fits so well with the Neo Nu Zilinder that makes him virtually indestructible . He’s the creepy face of the creepy new Kiwi . The smirky , USA sitcom Queen . He’s just a long list of cliches and I’m amazed no one in the MSM hasn’t thought of running a laugh track to accompany his media appearances / performances .
    Jonky is a manufactured Stepford Minister . Cunliffe is a human being trying to appeal to an old fashioned , folksy , extinct species . He should have done his market research more carefully . Or perhaps he listened to the wrong people who charmed him into a corner with false promises then stabbed him in the back .
    Meanwhile , we old school people look on in horror as the last of the Mohicans gets the axe while the Mighty Jonky-Bot soars like a drone in poisoned air over a polluted wasteland . Arnold Jonky-stiener . Rise of the Fresians .

    • When National elected Key, (and forgive me if I am wrong – I was not so interested in such things then) didnt they do it basically behind closed doors, and then present with a unified front, which they have maintained ever since. I dont recall the wannabees going head to head like Labour has, especially for so long.

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