Editorial: Labour papers over cracks

Last updated 05:00 18/09/2013

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OPINION: Three days in the water and Team Cunliffe has struck its first snag.

The snag is the abdication of deputy leader Grant Robertson. Labour's new leader and the party's MPs, including Mr Robertson, did their best yesterday to put a positive spin on the surprise development.

MPs were "joining together" and "putting the party first", Mr Cunliffe said.

The new line-up featuring finance spokesman David Parker as deputy leader was the "strongest" that could be put forward, said Mr Robertson, who has replaced Trevor Mallard as shadow leader of the House. However, the reality is that the new leader has lost an opportunity to heal the wounds created by the internal feuding that has bedevilled the party since its 2008 election loss.

Whether Mr Robertson declined overtures from the Cunliffe camp, as the bush telegraph suggests, or Mr Cunliffe preferred Mr Parker as his deputy is beside the point. If Mr Cunliffe did not offer Mr Robertson the job he should have.

After a three-way primary contest for the leadership laid bare the divisions between MPs, and the divisions between MPs and the wider party, Labour not only needs to talk unity, it needs to display it. The best way to achieve that would have been for the two main contenders for the leadership – Mr Cunliffe and Mr Robertson – to present a united front to the world.

Instead, Mr Cunliffe's deputy is an MP believed to have voted for the third candidate for the leadership – Shane Jones.

Mr Parker, who till recently had leadership aspirations of his own, is one of Labour's heavy hitters. He is the architect of its flagship proposals to re-regulate the electricity industry and introduce a capital gains tax.

However, he is more likely to be found tinkering out the back than "making the trains run on time" – Mr Robertson's strength. Whether bright ideas are what Mr Cunliffe needs from his deputy right now is highly debatable.

Mr Parker's elevation does unite the two smaller voting blocs in the caucus, but it leaves the largest grouping – the 16 MPs who voted for Mr Robertson to be leader – on the outside.

That may be an indication Mr Robertson is fearful of becoming entangled in the wreckage should the Cunliffe experiment capsize.

It may also be an indication that Mr Robertson has not yet abandoned his own leadership ambitions.

Whatever the case, Mr Cunliffe has grounds for concern.

He has advised Labour MPs who do not want to board the "new train leaving the station" to do the "honourable and dignified thing". But he will know from his own campaign for the leadership just how difficult it is for leaders to deal with colleagues who do not want to play by the rules.

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Team Cunliffe has successfully rounded the first mark but one hull is lifting out of the water and there are signs some of his crew are thinking about abandoning ship. Anticipate developments.

- The Dominion Post

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