Bill English was on fire on Wednesday, pointing out the different Davids, David Cunliffe presents to different audiences:
Hon BILL ENGLISH (Deputy Prime Minister): Well, 12 months on and some things have not changed about the Labour Party. I think I have said this before. The leader is still called David. Most of his caucus still do not support him.
Tim Macindoe: Probably more.
Hon BILL ENGLISH: Probably more, actually. Grant Robertson is still going around the country undermining a leader called David. But one thing has not changed: this David is a tricky David. With the other one you at least kind of knew what he was. And at least he knew what he was. But, of course, David Cunliffe is not quite so sure. This is a man who is a unionist with the unions, a Māori with the Māori, and a farmer with the farmers. But one thing that he tried not to be was a leafy suburb guy in the leafy suburbs. But what happened? He got caught standing in front of a yacht—a picture he could not get them to delete in Taranaki, unlike the other ones. It turns out that for all of his references to large homes in leafy suburbs, he has one. And, of course, being the working-class hero with the working class does not quite fit with being the leafy suburbs guy in the leafy suburbs. So what I thought I would do is have just a quick look at the latest update on his CV, because, as we know, that is a dynamic document to say the least. Bits appear on it and then disappear. He is the founder of Fonterra—actually, he is not; he is something else now. I came across this thing called DavidCunliffe.com—a digital identity. He is a digital guy when he is with the digital natives. This is a DavidCunliffe.com website, and I thought maybe I had found him. It says: “David has guided and supported individuals with matters of the soul for decades,”.
I thought maybe he is a monk with the monks. But then it goes on to say he has “become a respected figure …”—well, that does not sound quite like the person we are after. It says he is “often described as a … insightful individual,”—and he is, in his CV, described that way often. But the next one killed it: “refreshingly humble”. That was when we knew this was not the real David Cunliffe, because although he may be refreshing, it is not with humility. That is absolutely sure. Then I knew for sure when it said: “Surprisingly, his spiritual path has remained … refreshingly unboastful.” This is a party that cannot boast about its leader, that is for sure, and does not want to.
That was the funny part, but the next bit was more serious:
But usually in the Opposition when the leader is having a bad patch like he is, the front bench does the work. It actually took Shane Jones to show everybody just how weak and lazy the Labour front and middle benches are, because when they should be carrying their leader—because he is going to need a lot of that—by running issues that put pressure on the Government and attract the public’s attention, they are not doing any of that. They are not focused on anything that matters. In fact, it is infecting David Cunliffe. On my little phone I got a tweet from David Cunliffe that was about a big issue of the day. It said something like “I am very sorry to see the end of @massivemagNZ.” What the hell is that? It is the big issue for not just the Leader of the Opposition, because he also says to refer to Grant Robertson.
I think it must be a student magazine. That is the big issue of the day. I know that Grant Robertson never really left student politics, so the end of @massivemagNZ from Massey’s campus probably is the biggest single issue that has preoccupied him all week. But he should be doing more than that to carry his leader who needs guidance, who needs to be carried, who needs a team around him to feed him issues instead of him making them up as he goes.
John Armstrong points out that the Minister knows only too well what happens when a caucus isn’t behind its leader:
Although English’s voice was its usual mixture of dry humour and sarcasm, it had the occasional tinge of sympathy as the Minister of Finance spoke in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, doing what he loves doing – dissecting the Labour Party, diagnosing its various ailments and predicting it will fail to overcome them before voters roll up to the polling booths.
English blamed “lazy and weak” Labour MPs for failing to take the pressure off their leader. He said Shane Jones gaining headlines with regard to his allegations against Countdown had only served to show up the poor performances of his colleagues.
It is something English understands full well. It was from the same uncomfortable but potentially rewarding position that Cunliffe now occupies – Leader of the Opposition – that English led National in 2002 to its worst defeat in the party’s history.
The 2011 election was bad for Labour, but it wasn’t as bad as 2002 was for National.
However, that defeat weeded out a lot of the dead wood and after the election Bill and then-president Judy Kirk led a significant and much-needed reorganisation of the party. That laid the foundation which helped the party nearly win the following election.
Labour changed its rules after the last election but that’s saddled it with a leader without majority support in caucus. It kept most of its dead wood and there’s no sign of the significant pruning which is required.
The party has had two new leaders since the last election but it hasn’t made the other changes which would help make it look like a government in waiting.
Rather, day by day it’s looking more and more like its en route to an even worse result than it got three years ago.
Political fortunes can change very quickly and there’s no certainty about the election result, but Labour is fast running out of time to show it’s capable of running itself let alone running the country.